Term of N-Dearment- Riley Truttmann

Riley Truttmann

HIST 128


Term of N-Dearment: 

The significance of the month of February goes beyond being the month of love, it more importantly the month of black love. Black History month is an important time to celebrate the contributions, culture, and history of the African American people. The University of San Diego’s Black Student Union puts on a variety of events to embody the real meaning of the month. I attended one of these events, a discussion called “Term of N-Dearment” to engage in dialogue with both members of BSU and visitors regarding the use of the n-word in daily-life, media, and history. The discussion expanded upon the subjects we learned in class, particularly the use of the n-word by the black community and by anyone else. Only African Americans, those who have and do face the daily racism and discrimination that the word embodies should be able to choose to use the word. Though other people of color also face discrimination, this particular racial slur does not have a dark history used to oppress them and therefore it is not their’s to reclaim for use.

Before attending the meeting, I decided I should equip myself with more knowledge on the history and impact of the word to prepare myself with a lens of understanding for the experiences of African Americans and people of color at large. Because of my skin tone and the privilege that comes with it, I can never truly face institutional racism so I could not understand the impact of it on the psyche of black America. Yet, I could and should still try. The word quite literally stems from the latin word for the color black, but has picked up a much greater meaning over the past couple of centuries. Within the American context, its use as a derogatory term became more broadly recognized in the seventeenth century during slavery and was used by the dominant white society to refer to African Americans, and was linked to a range of negative racial ideologies and stereotypes. It would continue beyond the period and expand during Jim Crow. It was widely used in following years and like a snowball, its meaning grew greater with each act of discrimination and violence.

The Black Student Union created a very welcoming and inclusive environment by situating all the seats in a circle, so that no one felt left out of the conversation. The main subject of the meeting was centered around the use of the n-word and who is allowed to use it. Before the official discussion began, music was played and attendees were given food and encouraged to meet new people and talk amongst themselves. It was established in the preliminary conversations that the group as a whole was in agreement that only black people are allowed to choose to use it. We were shown a clip of a film that detailed the use of the n-word in pop culture to kick off the chat. They then passed around a hat with prepared questions. Some of the questions included, “Was the n-word used in your household growing up and in what context?” and “How do you feel about the use of the n-word in our pop culture?” Students and professors alike shared differing anecdotes and views. Multiple of the African American participants mentioned that the word was thrown around casually and commonly in their household and was never viewed as a big deal, while others, the people of color, and the caucasian students in the audience shared that their parents made it one of their objectives to teach their kids the negative meaning of the word and to punish them if they said it. These stories frame a cultural as well as a national and cross-racial debate surrounding the promotion of the word and its continuous use.

In his article for The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, Bill Maxwell notes that the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary was seeking to remove the n-word from future editions. Maxwell argues that the removal of the word from the dictionary could be harmful to the black community. He claims that it could remove a way for, “black Americans to buffet a hostile environment by creating neologisms, some endearing, from an epithet.” (Maxwell 44). The black community has reclaimed the word and incorporated it into Black English therefore can find power in using it. One way that black Americans buffet the hostile environment is by changing the word to end with an “a” to differentiate it from the version that ends with an “er”. One issue that arises from this adaptation is that other non-black groups have taken this differentiation too far to the point of believing it’s lost its meaning and that they can also use it. This is not right and our community needs to do better at educating others on the meeting and to be more sensitive. On the flip side, we must avoid trying to erase this word from the culture as that could lead to erasing a history that is painful, yes, but needs to be remembered as it is not resolved and continues on today.

The cultural discourse of dehumanizing racial slurs brings us to another step in the slow march for racial equality in America. Our text, Freedom on My Mind traces the movement from its early beginnings of improving the conditions of enslaved people, freeing enslaved people, and having black Americans legally considered citizens of the country they have called home for generations to a more current struggle of gaining the right to vote, abolishing jim crow, and reducing economic discrimination. Malcolm X was a forerunner of the modern struggle by using Black Nationalism and Black Power to push the civil rights movement further towards an ultimate goal of complete human rights. By coming to an understanding about the dehumanizing nature of the n-word and the complete cessation of the use of it by white people, the African American community can gain greater social equality, putting them one step closer to attaining their due human rights.

Maxwell, Bill. “‘N*****”: The Slur of Slurs.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, vol. 12, 1997, p. 44.

White, Deborah G., et al. Freedom on My Mind: a History of African Americans, with Documents. Bedford/St. Martins, 2017.


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