The N-word is the “atomic bomb of all racial epithets,” a word that is unfortunately so embedded in American culture that it is hard to erase, English professor Neal Lester told students Wednesday at the Tempe campus.
Lester, director of Project Humanities at ASU, spoke to students about the history, politics and culture of the term in a lecture titled, “Straight Talk About the N-Word.”
“It’s not about a word,” he said. “A word is nothing more than a bunch of letters put together, but the word has a context, and the word has a history.”
Law professor Myles Lynk, who moderated the discussion, said it is important to understand words and their connotation, especially for law students.
“Just like physicians have to dissect cadavers … lawyers have to dissect words,” he said.
Lester has taught a class at ASU on the N-word for four terms and researched it extensively.
Some people justify the word by using its spelling, pronunciation and who says the word to create when it is acceptable to use the word and by whom, Lester said.
“If you gotta work up all that, there must be something fundamentally wrong with the word,” he said.
Historically, the word denoted someone of color, Lester said, but over time it began to denote something much different.
Common folk songs like “Oh Susanna,” children’s books and advertisements from the 1800s show a historical violence and mocking of African Americans that is often tied to the use of the N-word, Lester said.
The N-word is “worn into the fabric of Americana,” Lester said.
In popular culture, celebrities like Paula Deen and Barbara Walters have used the word, which has created an uproar among people.
However, it is not only the use of the N-word that is so offensive, but the things that follow it, Lester said.
“The word is just symptomatic of all the other stuff,” Lester said.
Lester gave examples of President Barack Obama, who many called the N-word after being elected.
“This isn’t about policy,” Lester said, “it’s about personal identity.”
While some may strive to explain away those that use the word in situations like that of Obama by saying it is a small fraction of society, Lester said this phenomena is indicative of a larger issue.
“But you’re saying, ‘Wait a minute, these are the margins,’” he said. “I am saying, ‘I wish we could identify the margins. Because when I walk down the street, I don’t know where the margins are.’”
While, the N-word still holds such power that transcends time and society, Lester referenced a documentary called “The N Word” and said the word is a word that needs to be talked about.
“It points out, that this is a word that needs to be talked about,” Lester said. “It needs to be thought about. It needs to be thought through.”
The word will never go away; it isn’t as simple as burying it or taking the word back, Lester said.
“Erasing it from the dictionary doesn’t erase it,” Lester said.
James Weinstein, a law professor at ASU, said that historically there have been words that put down groups of people, but over time, they have forgotten.
“Wouldn’t it be great if we get to a place in our country where people don’t know what the word means?” Weinstein said.
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