Why I am uncomfortable using some words

In my recent post on why I will not see the film Django Unchained, I gave as one reason my distaste with the fact that Quentin Tarantino seems obsessed with using the n-word as much as possible. This prompted many comments on the use of such words and one commenter noted that I should not use the euphemism.

Perhaps I should make clear that I am not a shrinking violet when it comes to such words. I can hear them without having to reach for my smelling salts. I am also definitely not saying that people have no right to use them or even that they should never be used. When they are used in ways that I think are appropriate in order to make a point, I still find it jarring but do not get irritated.

But I personally recoil from using words that have historically been used as racial, ethnic, gender, or sexual slurs and never use them myself. It would take an unusual situation (such as where I had to read from some other person’s words) to get me to actually say them.

Why my hesitance? This is a subtle question and I carefully explained my reasoning for doing this two years ago in the context of publishers issuing a Bowdlerized edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that was being marketed as a text for high schools in which they avoided all use of the n-word, replacing it with the word ‘slave’ or circumlocutions.

What I wrote then still holds up as my views for today so I urge readers to read that and come back and comment here, since that post was on my old site and it is now closed for comments.


  1. says

    For those of us who were educated in the humanities, narrative forms like film, TV, novels, and short stories, are not primarily about the content of those stories, but about the structure of the storytelling. As a humanist, it’s always very strange to me when people critique a narrative based on its content (whether it’s a conservative theist objecting to perceived blasphemy or a liberal atheist objecting to racist/sexist language or content).

    I just can’t imagine anything less relevant than content when choosing what aspects of popular culture to expose oneself to.

    Tarantino is a weird bird. His films aren’t about crime, or violence, or racism. His films are always about other films. Django Unchained isn’t a movie about race or slavery; it’s a movie about John Ford westerns and Spaghetti Westerns and TV Westerns. It’s media commenting on itself.

    I’m not really a Tarantino fan. I’ve been watching and thinking about exploitation and mid-century popular cinema since before Tarantino started making movies. His schtick is a bit obvious to me.

    I try to remind myself that not everyone watches movies/reads stories/listens to music like I do. But it always startles me when really smart people have these kinds of reactions, despite my best intentions.

    One thing about a historical background in the humanities: I (for example) listen to a lot of minstrelsy and post-minstrelsy cylinder and disc recordings. Almost all current American popular culture derives from minstrelsy. You hear a lot of the n-word in old music (google “All Coons Look Alike to Me”), but the result of this is not to deaden my modern views on race. Instead, I hear/see aspects of contemporary popular culture, and I’m sensitized to the racism that inflects damn near everything in contemporary culture, to the point where the absence of the n-word sticks out like a sore thumb.

    This isn’t necessarily a defense of Tarantino (like I said, I’m not a fan), but more often than not, avoiding race and avoiding racism while still telling the same racist stories is more regressive and reactionary than merely using the word “nigger.”

  2. invivoMark says

    I think my views are very much in line with yours, Mano. I, too, avoid using the n-word, but I appreciate its value in very specific contexts. A historical fiction would be inaccurate to avoid its use. Blazing Saddles wouldn’t be nearly as great without its use (and that movie used it a LOT!). And, I think, its use in Huck Finn is important for emphasizing the racist culture it portrays, and students should feel uncomfortable to read/hear/say/write it.

    I have similar views on the f-word (no, not that f-word, the other one). However, I don’t think there are any important works where the use of that word is appropriate, unless it portrays a Brit asking his mate for some relief to his nicotine cravings.

  3. Daniel Schealler says

    The only time I mention the word n—-- openly is when I am mentioning the word (I never use it) and have already acquired consent from everyone in the conversation for use it openly.

    That said, I find the phrase ‘the N word’ to be cumbersome. If I have to mention the word (I make a habit of avoiding it) I typically pronounce it as n-ah, with a half-beat pause between the syllables. That typically does the job of getting my meaning across as well as self-censoring, and it does it in a way that doesn’t break the flow of the sentence.

    I agree with Mano that the word is inherently problematic. It’s appropriate for anyone who is not themselves a target of the word to be extremely hesitant to use it.

  4. Rodney Nelson says

    The thing that amazes me about people complaining about Huckleberry Finn is that it’s a strongly anti-racist book. Jim is the only mature adult in the book. He forces Huck to recognize his actions have consequences for other people. Twain, who grew up in antebellum Missouri, was familiar with the widespread racism in the US and wrote a book condemning it.

  5. says

    I remember being taught that the N word was bad, and then being shocked at how much my family and friends used it. I’d have to say I “realized” how much they were using it around 12 or 13. I made the realization that it was “ok” since we were all black.

    Even if it’s fiction, a period film like Django Unchained I would expect to have a lot of uses of the N word.

  6. Martha says

    @Rodney Nelson (#4): coming to that conclusion requires careful reading. I do wish we would spend our energy teaching people to read that carefully rather than fighting over whether a work of art should be redacted to remove offensive words.

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