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June 22, 2015

Obama Was Right To Use That Word

My readers know that I rarely agree with Barack Obama on much of anything. It is therefore a rare pleasure to support Barack Obama -- on his use of a particular word in an interview today.

WASHINGTON — It was a single word, just six letters long, but one that has not been spoken by an American president in public for generations.

President Obama invoked the word “nigger” in a podcast interview released on Monday to drive home his point that slavery still “casts a long shadow” on American life. But in the process, he touched a raw nerve in a country struggling to confront racism and hatred in the days after nine black parishioners were killed during Bible study in a South Carolina church.

“We’re not cured of it,” Mr. Obama said of racism during an interview for a “WTF With Marc Maron” podcast. “And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say nigger in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not.”

A lot of folks, both on the Right and on the Left, have taken umbrage at the president's speaking of one of the most hated slurs in contemporary society. But as I see it, the decision to speak the word instead of using a polite circumlocution ("the N-word") was rhetorically appropriate. Obama sought to point out that while what was once a common word is now shocking, its virtual elimination from polite society does not mean that all racism is dead and buried. He was right -- and his linguistic choice was right as well.

Obama's choice brings to mind something that I used to talk about with students when I still taught English. My curriculum included both John Steinbeck's Of Mice and men and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird -- both works that include the word "nigger". Given my students were some 35-40% African-American, I felt it was important to confront the use of that slur. My students and I discussed the ubiquity of the word in the times and the places where the books are set and why it was appropriate to include them -- as one student succinctly put it my first year teaching at that school, "that's how those people would have talked and so it is the right word for the author to use." And in this case, Barack Obama wanted us to remember the casual use of that word, and so he consciously and carefully chose to use it. -- and I applaud him for taking advantage of a teachable moment to do so.





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