Nothing tests the free speech waters quite like the infamous N-word. I've recently been asked - on two different occasions - for my thoughts on the issue. I thought I had a simple answer; but the more I thought about it, the more complicated my answer got.
My short answer is this: I don't think the N-word has any place in intelligent conversation. No matter who speaks it, the word exists only to provoke and inflame. Even in the best context, such as denoting brotherhood between African-Americans, the term shows a lack of sophistication.
Of course, it isn't necessarily that cut-and-dry. On one hand, words have only as much weight as we give them. On the other hand, this particular word is so loaded with hatred that it has become too heavy to speak. On one hand, many in the black community have adopted the word as a means of defusing its prejudicial taint. On the other hand, doing so is a convenient excuse for racist whites to ask, "If they can say it, why can't we?"
But does that mean we have any right to ban the word? I don't think so. In Germany, display of Nazi regalia is illegal, and some Nazi-themed movies are also banned. Though well-intentioned, such bans are a weak substitute for education and honest dialogue about cultural impact.
Bringing up the word itself during racial discussions may be inevitable. Bob Herbert uses it in dispassionate terms while discussing racial dynamics. Chris Rock uses it to brilliant effect in his classic comedy bit about how some in the black community are dragging the rest down. In a sense, the word has been co-opted by blacks, in much the same way the gay community has adopted gay-bashing slurs.
But until this nation can have an honest, dispassionate conversation about race, it's probably best for everyone to voluntarily ax its use. Growing up, I heard the N-word casually spoken as much among black friends in my neighborhood as among whites. Deep down, I knew the word was wrong on some level; then again, I thought, how bad can it be if so many people say it?
Fortunately, the word has never been in my vocabulary, and I learned hard lessons the few times I did say it as a kid. I credit that to good influences and some very honest friends. But what's going to happen to impressionable kids without such a foundation? Vocabulary starts at the very beginning; education can't always keep up. But if we're going to make headway on race relations in America, it has to start in childhood. Maybe then, arguments to ban the term can be pushed aside and people will be enlightened enough to voluntarily not say it.
At best, the N-word represents the worst of American society. Historically, it serves as the embodiment of an important lesson in race relations. Its effects must never be forgotten if we are to move forward. But that progression can only begin by discarding contemporary use of this divisive insult. That will not happen through suppression of speech; it starts from within.