The Two Uses of the "N-Word"

The "N-Word" has a sense 1 and a sense 2, like many words in any language do. The sense 1 usage, the way it would be used by a southern lynch mob, is quite rightly condemned.

But there is a sense 2 for the word. Some recent events in my life illustrating it:

1) I was riding the NYC subway. Four private school teens (or so I judged by their uniforms) were sitting across the aisle from me, engaged in animated conversation. I did not do a genealogical survey of their ancestry, but I'd guess that between the four, they might have had a couple of black grandparents and a couple of black great-grandparents. (In other words, they all looked pretty white, but any one of them might have claimed, "My grandma was black," and it would have been believable.) As they conversed, their constant term of endearment for each other was "n*&&^r": "Yo, n*&&^r, no way you got 98 on that test." All four will probably wind up at Ivy League or equivalent schools.

2) I was walking down the street in Brooklyn. A black guy was biking towards me. I saw he was a Rastafarian (not just sporting dreadlocks, but an actual Rasta). I always try to greet people I meet on the street in a friendly way, but when I meet a Rasta, there is a little something extra in the greeting: I've been to Twelve Tribes gatherings, I've been in a circle of dreads passing around their chalice, I've performed many Rasta songs of worship, and so, beyond our basic bond as fellow human beings made in the image of God, I also have shared a particular style of worship with them on many occasions. So I gave him a familiar nod of recognition. He responded, "Yo n*&&^r, what's up?" as he passed me.

It was clear to me this was an entirely friendly greeting.

3) Tonight as I walked home I saw a "couple"? arguing on the street. The black woman said to the white man in front of her, "N*&&^r, donchoo ever put your hands one me!" ("Donchoo" is Brooklyn English for "don't you": it is said that way by native Brooklynites of any race.) Pretty clearly, in the "racial insult" sense of the N-word, this made no sense at all.

Now, I never use the "N-word," as the sense 2 usage arose after my youth, and I think if I tried to use it in sense 2, it would be very easily misinterpreted as sense 1 usage. But sorry, politically correct language police, sense 2 is widespread and here to stay, at least for many decades to come. When the Rasta biker greeted me as "n*&&^r," he was not hurling a racial epithet at me, he was acknowledging a bond. So sure, keep condemning sense 1, but do try to recognize that sense 2 of the "N-Word" not only exists, but is today probably more common than sense 1.


  1. "But sorry, politically correct language police, sense 2 is widespread and here to stay, at least for many decades to come."

    Aren't the "politically correct language police" usually chastised for not saying anything about that usage? Over at the Hannity boards some "conservatives" were complaining about how blacks could use it while they could not? One person responded that they just could.


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