The n-word, "nigger," is still pretty much taboo in public discourse.
Although it has been revived — some say reclaimed — as a term of solidarity among young black men in recent years, its long history as a powerful and derisive racial epithet has largely kept it out of mainstream culture.
But that is changing, says Randall Kennedy, a Harvard Law School professor who has written a new book about the word, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. "People are debating all over the place — in places high and low — about using the word 'nigger,'" he says.
The new usage of the word was popularized by "gangsta" rap, music that celebrated West Coast gang violence, during the early 1990s. It was adopted by many young black fans of rap and hip-hop. The word has been used by comedians like Chris Rock, and in movies about urban culture.
Young black men who use the word say they mean it with no offense attached, as a term of endearment.
"When I say, 'What's up, my nigga?,' that's kind of like 'What's up, my brother?,'" says Joe Plaskett, a 23-year-old from New York.
Scholars say this usage of the word represents an effort by black people to take over the word for themselves, stripping it of the hateful and degrading meaning historically given to it by whites.
"N-i-g-g-e-r — 'nigger' — is a term coined by white supremacists and slavemasters who intended to harm the psychology and the social standing of black slaves," says Michael Eric Dyson, who teaches African-American studies at DePaul University and is the author of Holler If You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur. "N-i-g-g-a, n-i-g-g-u-h, n-i-g-g-a-z — 'niggaz' — are terms generated within hip-hop culture... attempts of black people to wrest control over how they will be viewed, or at least termed, by the dominant society."
But many black Americans, especially older ones, are not convinced. Kennedy, who argues in his book that words' meanings can change with context, says he is often approached by older black Americans who say they understand his argument, but that for them the word will always bring back memories of segregation, of being turned away from ballot boxes, of enforced social inferiority of black people.
Plaskett and his younger brother, Jasen, say they use the word freely among friends their age, but not with their parents or older relatives. Their father, Joe Plaskett Jr., says he understands his sons' use of the word, but doesn't like the word's evolution. "They don't know the history of the word, the context in which it's been used in our history as black Americans. And that's a problem."
Their grandmother, Bunny Plaskett, was upset to learn the boys were using the word. "You see, I'm a Southerner and the word offends me," she says. "Because when I was growing up it was a very hateful, very hurtful word. The word was spoken to you to hurt you. So I would like to never hear the word again."
Patricia Williams, a professor at Columbia Law School who writes on race issues, believes that in beginning to accept the new usage of the word, mainstream culture is unfairly ignoring the objections of black Americans like Bunny Plaskett who remember the pain of life in the United States before civil rights. "Words have histories embedded in them that don't ever quite go away," says Williams, "even though it feels like this is the word of the minute."
Can White People Use It?
There is another tricky question: can white people use "nigga" in its new usage? White fans account for a large share of rap and hip-hop sales, and have long been exposed to the new usage.
Kennedy believes it is acceptable for white people to use the term: "I believe that words can be used in all sorts of ways. We are the masters of words."
But Dyson had clear guidelines in his interview for Downtown: "Here's a rule of thumb for all white Americans who might be watching this show as to how to use the word 'nigger' — Never! See? So that's a general rule of thumb."
Some young whites are flouting that rule, and using the term themselves, with black and white friends alike. "It doesn't mean anything bad now. It's not meant to hurt any body. It's like a greeting, like 'Hello, how are you doing?' It's a casual thing," says John Gouddy, a white teenager who sometimes uses the words with his friends.
The issue created a buzz when it came up in a recent episode of Fox's high-school drama Boston Public. In the episode, a white student uses the word with his black friend, but is challenged by another black student, and a fight breaks out. The boys' white teacher then leads a class discussion using Kennedy's book — and a black teacher asks to have the white teacher removed for even uttering the word.