The disturbing allure of the N-word for some people

The N-word is a horrible slur. Like all other slurs that are used as synonyms for people’s ethnicity, sexuality, gender, and gender identity, it is used to demean people. They are not words that I think anyone should use, the only exception being in highly academic contexts where the words themselves are the subject of study and one needs to use them to avoid ambiguity or when people who belong to the group being described derogatorily use the words in an attempt to defang them.

But it does seem to be the case that there are people who are not Black who relish the opportunity to use the N-word. The word seems to have an allure for them that they cannot resist and they seem to seize any opportunity to use it and even go to the extent of creating opportunities for them to use it, while trying to act as if the context makes it acceptable. I have written before about how filmmaker Quentin Tarantino seems to absolutely delight in using the word in his films and even plays a part in the film Pulp Fiction where his character throws the word around. (Incidentally, whenever I write a post that castigates Tarantino, I get responses from his fans who assert that he is some kind film making genius and that I am too stupid to understand the humor and subtlety. These fans are as passionate about their idol as are fans of Sam Harris.)

Popular podcaster Joe Rogan is the most recent person to have it revealed that he has used the term repeatedly, in his case in his podcasts that reach millions of people. Much of the discussion has centered on whether Rogan is racist, an allegation that he has vigorously denied, as have others who have been quoted as using the word. That is understandable. The label of racist is a very damaging one unless one is an avowed and open white supremacist and even some of them shy away from being characterized as such.

But even the most clueless of people would realize that using the word immediately opens one up to the charge of being a racist and so the question is why people venture into those dangerous waters if they do not want to risk getting wet. This really mystifies me. It is as if the use of the word is some forbidden but delicious fruit whose temptation they cannot resist even if they think of themselves as not being racist and must subsequently somehow deflect the charge of racism that will inevitably be raised.

Cartoonist Keith Knight has a take on it that I think gives as good a reason for this behavior as any that I have come across.

I do not use the N-word. The only time I might even consider using the word is in an academic context is if I had to quote a passage written by someone else that contains the word and even then I would likely replace it with [N-word] to clearly indicate that I was paraphrasing.

Some might ask why one should bother to go to all that trouble. After all, pretty much everyone, other than perhaps a child, knows what word I am talking about. If I know the word and the reader or listener knows the word, what is to be gained by not explicitly saying it, if the context makes it clear that it is not being used as a slur? Isn’t saying ‘the N-word’ as bad as saying the N-word? The answer is no. When I use the formulation of ‘the N-word’, as I have done throughout this post, I am doing two things. I am making clear what word I am talking about but at the same time I am also making it clear that I think the word is awful and am distancing myself from it.

Of course, in these days where everything is viewed in culture war terms, I run the risk of being being called ‘politically correct’ or ‘virtue signaling’ by avoiding the word. I don’t care. Being called those things is a damn sight preferable to running the risk of being thought a racist.


  1. garnetstar says

    Agree. But, I think that the word is worse than a horrible slur. Its history over hundreds of years, but especially during the Jim Crow era, was a threat of violence. It became of way of saying “You may not be actually enslaved anymore, but we can do this to you, we can beat and torture and murder you, anytime.” Saying it was a way to enforce white supremacy.

    And I think that it is deservedly uniquely reviled because, after that history, it’s an implicit threat of violence.

  2. DonDueed says

    Then there’s the “Huckleberry Finn” problem. I wonder what Twain would say about it if he were around today.

  3. Allison says

    Note that it makes a big difference whether it is a white person saying it or a Black person saying it. When a white person says the N-word, whether they want to or not, they invoke the power of white supremacy. It’s built into the structure of USA-an society, and you can’t opt out of it if you’re white. (I like to say it’s “non-consensual.”) It’s a little like when a person in a police uniform gives an order, like “put your hands up”: they invoke the power of the state. Except that a police officer can take off their uniform, but a white person can’t take off their whiteness.

    I think this is in fact the attraction of saying the N-word for some white people — they enjoy the sense of power it gives them. It’s like people who enjoy waving guns around — they may never intend to actually shoot someone, but they enjoy the sense of power that the knowledge that they could if they wanted to gives them. (Unfortunately, because guns tend to go off when you play with them, they often end up shooting people anyway.)

    The point of using the circumlocution “N-word” (if you’re white) is to make it clear that you’re explicitly trying to talk about it without invoking the power of white supemacy. Even so, given the pervasiveness of structural racism/white supremacy, that expression is not something people — especially white people — should throw around casually.

  4. Allison says

    DonDueed @2

    Then there’s the “Huckleberry Finn” problem.

    This is IMHO one of the exceptions. If you’re writing a story or a movie or something with a character who would normally use the word (e.g., a racist character), you kind of have to be willing to include it in your story. Mark Twain was writing about a time and place where that was the usual word for Black people. Mark Twain could no more avoid using the word than he could avoid mentioning that Jim was enslaved. But it is clear that it was not him that was calling people by that word, but his characters. (The book is generally considered to be anti-racist and anti-slavery.)

    One still has to be careful.

  5. file thirteen says


    I was reading youtube comments to one of Marilyn Manson’s songs (I couldn’t care less about the person but I cannot deny that the music resonates with me) and there was someone being a dick. He got a few, not unreasonable, replies and started replying with [N-word]*. Nothing else, just that word, and whatever anyone said, that was his response.

    Then someone made a quote from Manson’s “Irresponsible Hate Anthem”: “Everybody’s someone else’s [N-word]. I know you are, so am I.” That shut him up.

    * Often when quoting I have little compunction about repeating the actual words said, but there’s an appropriate time and place for everything.

  6. sonofrojblake says

    I think it’s been about ten years since anyone with a social conscience can even type the whole word out, much less actually say it, even in an academic context. I’d certainly not use it, even in exclusively white company. And if someone wants to label me “PC” or “woke”… yes, I am (or do my best to be), what of it?

    As Allison said at (3), it’s akin to waving a gun around.

    As for the Huck Finn exception, my own humble opinion is: write something else. Twain worked in a time when an author of colour would likely not get published. This isn’t that time. Let people of colour tell their own stories.

  7. Mano Singham says

    I think that if I were assigned to teach Huck Finn, I would use the original text with the N-word so that students would encounter it but I would never require any student to read aloud any part of the text that had the N-word and I would tell students that any written assignment they submitted would require the substitution of the N-word with the ‘N-word’.

    In other words, I would be reinforcing the message that while we accept that Twain was reflecting the language of his times, it should not be the language of our times.

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    Reading Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning (a history of US anti-African prejudice), I’ve felt bemused by a passing observation about the Harlem Renaissance’s defiance of White slurs and the Black elite’s embrace of White standards, exemplified by calling themselves “The [N-word]ati”.

    Describing it that way is awkward as hell -- but less actual trouble, all in all, than using the word verbatim. We may need to get time machines and jump ahead a few centuries to drain off some of the emotional charge from those six letters.

  9. garnetstar says

    John @9, any that invoke centures-long histories of violence towards any people.

    I leave it to yourself to determine which those are.

  10. John Morales says

    Can’t think of any others.

    Might it be that this alleged allure is directly related to its taboo status?

  11. says

    Pizza cutters: all edge, no point.

    It’s not hard to eliminate words from one’s own vocabulary. I subscribe to Leave it to Beaver language, with Intersectional thinking. Even *if* words “aren’t offensive to _them_”, consider how it changes what others think of you.

    I can’t even bring myself to say Indian unless the person is descended from the Asian country; it’s always First Nations.

  12. John Morales says

    hohnjamilton, the background elevator music makes it hard to hear what he’s saying, and there are no closed captions to the clip so I can turn the sound off and still get the message. Bah.

  13. John Morales says

    Rob, when quoting or paraphrasing someone or something. Mind you, I have no problem saying ‘aboriginal’ or ‘aborigine(s)’, because they’re only deprecated, rather than taboo.

    I see where you’re coming from (cf., but then you might note that the very fact that you’ve actually written the word instead of writing ‘the A-word’ indicates it lacks the same taboo status as that of the very special word which must be euphemistically expressed as ‘the N-word’.

  14. Rob Grigjanis says

    John @16: I don’t know the “taboo status” of the word in Australia. That’s why I’m asking when you might use the word.

  15. John Morales says

    There are no such words here in Oz, excepting the word to which this very post refers.

    Notice how careful I am being? I’m well aware this is a USA-centric blog.

    I can’t help but think that this is but another example of USAnian cultural influence, but at least Wikipedia retains its entry without obfuscation.

  16. theflyingchipmunk says

    There are some people who get a certain kick out of saying that word; perhaps a tingle of excitement, even. I’ve lost count of white folks asking “innocently” why it’s forbidden only for whites and not for black people and how unfair of a rule that was.

  17. anat says

    Well, today I learned of another context in which the word if used explicitly, with no self-censorship: Apparently judges use it a lot in trials involving workplace discrimination (and I suppose trials of hate crimes as well). I suppose the idea is they are either quoting or discussing whether or not it was said.

  18. Jazzlet says

    There are words for Jew that I suggest have a similar level of taboo, and although the histories are different at least as long a history behind them. At least there are words for Jew that I would be shocked to hear spoken, and extremely surprised to see written anywhere except by right wing racists.

  19. Holms says

    #11 John
    Might it be that this alleged allure is directly related to its taboo status?

    That would be the entire point of Mano’s inclusion of that cartoon in his post. And I have seen footage which seems to agree with this thesis.

  20. sonofrojblake says

    @Jazzlet, 21:

    Careful. I learned recently from a column by David Baddiel that one of the offensive words for Jew is “Jew”. The preferred formulation is “Jewish person”. You can’t be too careful.

  21. John Morales says

    Jazzlet @21, good point. So garnetstar is vindicated, voiding my #11.
    I can certainly think of an example.

    Holms @22, then it’s conceptually simple to remove the allure.

  22. cartomancer says

    I think the “allure” is fairly easily explained. In many it’s the performative transgression that’s the attraction, in others the long history of racism it encapsulates.

    I have to be slightly careful when teaching Latin sometimes, since the usual Latin word for black, “niger/nigra/nigrum”, is the root word for the slur and can sound very similar (though the pronunciation is usually slightly different). I am fortunate in that said slur is not common in the UK, and the black students I have are all from Nigeria, which is itself named from the common root, and get that the Latin usage predates by some way the slur. Besides, Romans tended to use the other Latin word for black, “ater, atra, atrum” when referring to skin colours on people.

    As for reclaiming slurs, I expect the usage in Black communities is complicated and far from universally appreciated. I don’t know that world at all, but I do know the LGBT+ world, and for us reclaimed slurs are divisive. The word “queer” most obviously. A lot of, especially younger, LGBT+ people seem to actively prefer the term as a generic catch-all, but to those of us over 30 it is difficult to think of it as anything but a slur. I do not like it one bit for referring to LGBT+ things, probably thanks to it having been the preferred slur du jour when I was growing up (though, curiously, I am fine with its original meaning of peculiar, strange and unusual in a non-LGBT context, because that isn’t and never was a slur).

  23. Rob Grigjanis says

    Jazzlet @21: You’re probably aware of the recent controversy about fans of the Tottenham Hotspur football club. Historically, the club had a large Jewish fan base, which often resulted in slurs being aimed at them by fans of other clubs. At some point, the Spurs fans ‘reclaimed’ a particular slur, and proudly referred to themselves, whether Jewish or not, as the “Y** Army”. That usage has been objected to by various groups (World Jewish Congress, eg) and individuals, and defended by others.

  24. sonofrojblake says

    Prediction : within this century, there will be a generation of young Black people telling the current generation of Black people to stop using the n word.

  25. says

    The [allure] of using the N-word? The [allure] of using a word for social dominance?

    Is it [allure]? Or [resentment] at the taboo of using a word that recalls the abuse that comes with the experience of the word?

    Frankly I find this [leveling mechanism] a useful tell for people who are socially impulsive with dominance behavior.

  26. mnb0 says

    “The N-word is a horrible slur.”
    In Suriname it isn’t (I’m talking about the literal Dutch translation of course). I’ve been called a white n…. and that was a huge compliment. At the other hand the literal Dutch translation of black with a capital B is a grave insult, even in The Netherlands ittself. Its meaning is similar to the R-word for Indians (and so is its Dutch counterpart).
    Simplest for me is Afro-Surinamese, Afro-Dutch and Afro-American. My point: it’s all about convention.

    @11 JohnM: “Can’t think of any others.”
    Well, that tells us a few things about you. I’ll give you one. Never ever call a Dutchie a cheesehead. Never ever call a German a hun.

  27. sonofrojblake says

    mnbo, 31:

    In Suriname it isn’t

    You’re forgetting something very, very important and relevant: it’s only what Americans feel that matters (I did originally type “what Americans think”, but…). If they say a word is offensive, well, it must be. No amount of pointing out that there are other cultures, languages, histories, traditions, y’know… nuances that they might be missing will make any difference to the fact that they are right and you are at best an ignorant racist if you disagree even slightly.

  28. anat says

    mnb0 @31: If it is not a slur in Suriname, then it shouldn’t be seen as a literal translation of the word in question but of the once acceptable but now deprecated ‘Negro’.

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