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Last night, I watched ESPN’s Special Report The “N” Word, and it nearly brought tears to my eyes.  Although I missed the beginning of the show, I found it very interesting, but sometimes hard, to hear the various viewpoints of the panelists who were invited to speak on this topic.  It is both revealing and sad for me to see how divided people from all racial backgrounds are about the use of this highly charged word.  Personally, I’ve come a long way on this subject.  My thinking has changed over time. And I think, for the better.

When I was a young dude, I routinely used the N-word in my vocabulary, until one day, a brotha who was younger than me, stepped to me and assertively said, “Yo, B, before you were a nigger in America, you were a king in Africa.”  His statement may have been a romanticized view of history – because not all black African men were kings – but his challenge did stop me from carelessly using the word in the future. His intervention made me re-think how I spoke to other members of my race.  In an instant, he helped me to reframe my thinking.  Since that moment, I’ve dropped the N-word like a bad habit.  Over time, I’ve learned so much about white supremacy, the greatness of black people, and how deeply ingrained internalized oppression is for so many of us. I’ve grown to better appreciate the power of words and language, and today I cringe when I hear the N-word used by black people, young and old.  I am often disappointed when the N-word is used by those who I consider to be politically aware and socially conscious.

I’m clear that the N-word was (and still is) used by white people to dehumanize black people.  It’s a word that has helped to condition millions of people to see us as “less than” white people, and to help “keep us in our place.” I’m also very clear that social and political policies, in addition to an unjust legal system – which are centuries-old and fueled by hatred and racism – affect black people more frequently, and insidiously, than does black people using it with each other in every day conversation.  Indeed, there are bigger fish to fry in our continued fight for equality, respect, and the acknowledgment of our humanity.  The focus should remain on eradicating systemic racism and discrimination.  However, the words we speak to each other can often reveal how we truly perceive one another, and ultimately, how we treat each other.

For me, the history of murder, genocide, enslavement, and discrimination in connection with the N-word outweighs my freedom to own it and adapt it as a positive term of endearment. I do understand the current justification of the use of the word and why people use it so pervasively.  I get it.  Language is malleable, and the social meanings of words shift over time.   But I choose not to take on the racial slurs used by my oppressors and then use them haphazardly against my own people – especially when it’s easy enough to NOT use them.  There are plenty of endearing words in the English language that could easily replace the N-word – words that could help us to build our racial pride and self-esteem to a higher level.  With all that we have gone through, survived, and triumphed over collectively – and all that we continue to experience today – I wish that we could use more beautiful, powerful, empowering, affirming, loving words with one another, rather than embrace a word that historically has been used to demean us, and make us feel so ugly.

That’s my wish.I’m sure many will read this and disagree.  Black people who use the word daily will defend their use of it, or think what I wish for is too idyllic.  White people will argue that since black people use it, it should be okay for them to use it, too.  Others will say I am over-thinking the impact of the word, or that my perspective is limited, dated, unsophisticated, disconnected, or steeped in respectability politics.  And I’m cool with discussing all points of view.  But on a day when sports radio and social media are all abuzz over the N-word in sports, hip-hop, and in the culture in general, I just wanted to give my personal take on the issue.  I’m open to hearing and considering the various viewpoints on this subject.  I hope that all involved in this public debate will consider mine.
Byron Hurt is a former college quarterback, an award-winning documentary filmmaker, writer, activist, and lecturer.  His documentary films Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes and Soul Food Junkies are currently streaming online, free, this month at www.video.pbs.org.  His website is www.bhurt.com.  Find him on Twitter @byronhurt.