The "N" Word Rules

It's always tricky to decide how - or whether - to respond to the kind of offensive, stupid comments like the ones Dr. Laura Schlessinger made on her radio program on Tuesday.  One would hope that following that motherly advice - 'Ignore her and she'll go away' - would be successful. But that doesn't really work on the playground. And, in the era of 24/7 media, it doesn't work, either.

For those who are blissfully ignorant of this matter, let me clear it up.  A black woman who has a white husband called radio personality Laura Schlessinger for advice about how to respond when her husband's friends made racist comments in her presence.

Schlessinger responded with a rant that included several uses of the “n” word.  Just so you can understand it in context, here's the tape of the exchange at mediamatters.org.

So far, the incident has followed the usual trajectory: outrage from the usual suspects, a non-apology apology on a blog, and Web and cable news chatter about the significance.  And therefore, I could just jump to the next step: forgetting it.

But I've spoken to more than one white person of reasonable intelligence and wide experience who's said roughly the same thing: if black people use that word all the time, why can't I?

So I'm kind of happy to have the opportunity to clear some things up.

1. African Americans regularly call each other the "n" word.

This is flat out false. It's like saying Italians are loud-mouthed tanorexics and real housewives are drunk by the afternoon and end arguments by swearing or pulling each other's hair. It’s just proof that you watch too much of the wrong kind of television.

The "n" word is used in regular conversation by people who think its okay to use four-letter words at a child's birthday party. That's a small number of folks. But perhaps those are all the black people Dr. Laura hangs out with, which would sure explain a lot.

And even among the black people who do use that word, it's often confined to a locker room, a bar at 3 o'clock in the morning, or the midnight poker game at their cousin's house after too much beer.  Not in public, polite company or the open mike of a national radio show.

2. But what about Kanye West, Jay Z and 50 Cent? They say it all the time.

Presumably these gentlemen say all sorts of things that you would not. Perhaps if you're reflecting on your former career of running drugs in housing projects, or trying to avoid women who only love you for the millions you made from your multi-platinum CD, you may find yourself forgetting that the "n" word is inappropriate.  Otherwise, there's really no call for it. Let me put it this way: rapper Eminem has said it's not okay for him to use the "n" word. So if you're tempted to say it, just ask yourself, "What Would Eminem Do?"

Eminem and Tracy Morgan

Eminem and Tracy Morgan took the stage at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. Christopher Polk /Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Christopher Polk /Getty Images

3. If ANY black people are allowed to say it, isn't it racist that I can't?

Maybe.  For Americans who aren't a member of a minority defined by disability, nationality, race, religion or sexual orientation, it may seem like a double standard, but people inside groups are allowed to say things that outsiders are not. Jerry Seinfeld gets to make jokes about Jewish people; Chris Rock gets to make them about black people; Margaret Cho gets to make them about Asian people.  And you don't.

That's unfair, right? But in the list of injustices endured in this country largely on the basis of prejudice - slavery, having your ancestral land stolen, being confined to government camps in war time, being barred from certain schools and clubs, having people shout at you to "go back to the country you came from" when you were born in New Jersey, or being forbidden to marry the person of your choice - having your use of racial slurs limited by social norms just doesn't rate.  Sorry.

And if you believe that the people who have suffered - or whose ancestors have suffered - these injuries should just get over it already, maybe you can set the example by just getting over the fact the "n" word is off limits.  Always.

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