The Unprintable "N-Word"

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Unprintable "N-Word"

Michael Tomasky has a piece up over on the American Prospect on why the Washington Redskins should change its name.

In making his argument, Tomasky (or the editors at the Prospect) have engaged in something I have never really understood: censoring the word "nigger"
Let’s start with the mother of all racist pejoratives -- you know the word I mean. This one I won’t put it in print; it’s too lurid. Obviously, no one would name a team the Washington N-----s, and anyway, I don’t think Redskins is equivalent to that. We white folk (this includes not just the United States, but pre-U.S. colonialists) may have killed far more native people, but what we did to black people occupies a more prominent place in our national memory, and I think probably rightly so. So the N-word, so fully associated with that history, is a special case, and it has no equal.
What is it about "nigger" that makes it unprintable? Why does it always have to be written as "n----r" or referred to as the "N-word"?

I obviously understand the terribly offensive nature of this epithet and can maybe understand censoring it if one is quoting someone using it pejoratively.

But when you are trying to make a point about its offensiveness or discussing the word itself, why do people refuse to print "nigger" and insist on the sanitized versions?

What is it about this word that makes is so horrible that it can't be printed even when discussing its history, use, or offensiveness?

The Prospect doesn't seem to censor the word "fuck"
“Fuck yeah it did!” screamed a well-known Washington environmental activist seated in front of me as he pumped his fist. “Fuck yeah!”

Looking very little like Knight himself, Dennehy stomps around the screen screaming "fuck" and "pussy" with abandon. It's not an inaccurate portrayal so much as a bland one. Though the script is in many cases taken directly from Feinstein's quotes, Dennehy's performance has the weird effect of making the material feel less outrageous than it actually is. In one scene, Dennehy ends a tirade by yelling, "Fuck, fuck, fuck!"
Or "shit"
Thanks to the dinner roll incident at the G-8 meeting, we know this is Bush's sincere view. "You see," Bush famously explained to Blair, "the irony is what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit and it's all over."
Or "motherfucker"
“Yesterday was a motherfucker,” one AFL-CIO staffer commented this Wednesday, referring to Tuesday’s announcements that the federation would eliminate 167 of the AFL-CIO’s 426 positions (61 new positions will also be created)
Or "fag"
I even gave a name to this strategy: "Wag the Fag."
Or "gook"
[P]eople were calling you a gook, a slut, a pig
Hell, it even has dozens of other instances where it has printed "nigger," so what exactly is the standard?

Anyway, I remember reading Randall Kennedy's "Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word " a few years back and, judging from the looks I got on the Metro, you'd have thought that even reading a book with the word "nigger" on the cover was completely unacceptable.

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