On Responding to the N-word
Leonard Pitts, Jr. is a columnist, author of three novels and winner of numerous awards including the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary. When I heard a couple of weeks ago that he was speaking at Flagler College, having enjoyed reading his insightful column for many years, I eagerly went to see him.
Mr. Pitts’s formal presentation was well received. Then, he began to take questions from the audience. His responses to each were like a laser in that his answers were precisely on point–that is, until I asked my question.
When I first stepped up to the mike, I explained that I had worked with teenagers for many years, and sometimes a white student would seek to insult a black student by calling him the N-word. Often the response was a physical fight that would lead to a school suspension.
Before returning to school, in some cases both students were asked to meet with me. I saw each separately at first and usually I’d discuss Martin Luther King, Jr. For the black students, at some point in our discussion I would ask, “Do you understand that Martin Luther King, Jr. was all about non-violence when dealing with injustice?”
“Sure, I know that, man!” was a common reply.
Then I would say something like, “When you were called the N-word, you started to physically attack the guy who called you that. That’s a violent approach to the injustice you had faced. If it happens again, can you think of some other way to deal with this, some way that would respect Martin Luther King, Jr.’s memory?”
I would then typically get the following type reply: “If Martin Luther King, Jr. lived in my neighborhood, he’d have realized that if anyone called him that, the only way to respond is to bloody the guy up good!”
Having had experiences like this, I asked Mr. Pitts, “As a respected black man, how would you respond to someone who called you the N-word, and how would you advise black people to respond in the event that someone called them the N-word?”
Mr. Pitts’s Response
As I had said before, prior to my question, Mr. Pitts’s answers to questions that were being presented to him were right on point. Now, his reply wandered off to related issues, never directly answering my question.
He spoke, for example, of how he objected to hip-hop’s embrace of the word. He related it to how many women in the women’s movement have now embraced the phrase, “She’s my bitch,” as a form of flattery, despite the fact that historically it was used in an unkind manner by sexist men seeking to put down women. And he spoke eloquently about why he personally found the N-word so offensive. I didn’t write down his exact words, but it seemed to closely match the words he used in some of his earlier newspaper columns. For example, in a column published on November 30th, 2013, he wrote:
The N-word is unique. It was present at the act of mass kidnap that created “black America,” it drove the ship to get here, signed the contracts at flesh auctions on Southern ports as mother was torn from child, love from love and self from self. It had a front row center seat for the acts of blood, rape, castration, exclusion and psychological destruction by which the created people was kept down and in its place. The whole weight of our history dictates that word cannot be used except as an expression of contempt for African Americans.
Now, I do want to avoid a too simplistic presentation of Mr. Pitts’s position on the N-word. He does believe that the word can be rightly used in certain situations. For example, in a column titled, “Don’t Censor Mark Twain’s N word” he defended how it is used in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:
Young Huck Finn, trying to get right with God and save his soul from a forever of fire, sits there with the freshly written note in hand. “Miss Watson,” it says, “your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send.”
Huck knows it is a sin to steal and he is whipped by guilt for the role he has played in helping the slave Jim steal himself from a poor old woman who never did Huck any harm. But see, Jim has become Huck’s friend, has sacrificed for him, worried about him, laughed and sung with him, depended upon him. So what, really, is the right thing to do?
“I was a-trembling,” says Huck, “because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell’ — and tore it up.”
Mr. Pitts wrote this column in response to a publisher who had decided to put out a new edition of this classic story that replaced all 219 occurrences of the N-word with words such as “runaway slave.” Although Mr. Pitts acknowledges the publisher means well, he states that, “…it is troubling to think the state of reading comprehension in this country has become this wretched, that we have tweeted, PlayStationed and Fox Newsed so much of our intellectual capacity away that not only can our children not divine the nuances of a masterpiece, but that we will now protect them from having to even try.”
I liked what Mr. Pitts had said in reply to my question but as I left the auditorium, I wondered why he appeared to avoid answering my question more directly. And I wondered what he would say about the approach that I have been recommending for responding to insults (see for example INSULTING CRITICISM: WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT IT?).
My Alternative to Violence When Responding to the N-word
Although I have given a number of different types of examples of people responding maturely to insults in past posts, I have never described specifically what my approach would look like in the type of a situation we have been discussing today. I, of course, recognize that since I am not an African-American, I lack much legitimacy in offering my opinion on this topic. Nevertheless, just to spur a deeper discussion, very tentatively I am tossing out one alternative to violence.
In the scenario presented below, this is the first time Fred is calling Leroy the N-word. In my view, Leroy’s response would be very different if Fred has begun to repeatedly taunt him. Concerns about how to handle taunting are addressed in my post titled The Art of Playful Teasing.
Leroy, an African-American teenager is called the N-word by Fred, a white teenager. Leroy replies by looking firmly into the eyes of Fred and says,”You just called me a nigger. I want to make certain you clearly understand that that word was used in the past by people who believed in slavery and that African-Americans are less than human. Is that what you are trying to say to me, that you believe in slavery, and I’m less than a human being?”
“Yeah, you nigger!” Fred replies.
Leroy pauses to think about this for a moment, looking down in a sad manner. Then, looking squarely into Fred’s eyes, he says firmly, “Why are you trying to insult me, Fred?”
“Because I hate niggers!”
“Fred, I’ve met some black guys who strike me as pretty hateful characters. But from my experience, there are a lot of great black guys out there. I hope in time you’ll change your mind. Anything else you want to say to me?
“Yeah, go to hell!”
“I understand that you’re trying to insult me, Fred. I’m always interested to hear you out. I’m sorry to hear how you feel about black people.”
Well, those are some thoughts I have for you this week. I encourage readers to continue the discussion by posting comments. I know these issues bring up for many of us some very strong emotions.
Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.