OP-ED: Obama said it, and why that's OK


Thirty-five years ago, the foremost American comedian of his day, Richard Pryor, returned from his first visit to Kenya and declared that he would never again call another black person "n----" or use the word in his public performances. He sparked a movement that gained near universal affirmation if not participation. In time, it seemed that the euphemism "N-word" had vanquished its dark shadow.

Then President Barack Obama spoke the word "n-----" out loud in a podcast interview last week. His doing so has renewed the question that many thought had been settled: Is it ever appropriate to use this word, so laden with hatred and the vicious history of racism?

Yet when the president uttered the word, one would have thought he was oblivious to the controversy. His use is particularly notable, not because he is the first president to say "n-----" (Oval Office tapes of Presidents Nixon and Lyndon Johnson reveal free and regular use of the word) but because it shocked a nation that assumed Obama had the most to lose from its continued use. For those who have argued that the word should never be used publicly, Obama's broadcast of the word is a major setback.

Lost in the kerfuffle is the central point he was making: that even if the movement to banish the word were successful, it would not be evidence that racism had been diminished, let alone eliminated. "And it's not just a matter of it not being polite to say 'n-----' in public," he said. "That's not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It's not just a matter of overt discrimination."

I agree with the president using the word, but I disagree that its removal from common conversation is as meaningless as he suggests. With the stakes now raised, white folks from all walks of life are more careful not to be heard, overheard, recorded or reported to have used the word.

It is important that we have honest conversations about race, and prohibiting the use of this word warps our interracial interactions and thwarts the progress we genuinely seek to make. It does this by blunting the reality of the state of affairs. We need to feel the sting of what this word means when it is used to demean and degrade a person or a people. Only "n-----" conveys the gravity of the hatred behind that word.

I arrived at this point of view in a conversation with a white woman who is a member of the church that I pastor (the church is predominantly white). Obama had recently been elected to his first term as president, and as she was collecting her mail from the mailboxes that serve the homes on her block, she greeted a neighbor. When he saw Obama's image on a mailer she was holding, he pointed at it and said to her, "That damned n-----."

I am black, and she shared this with me because she wanted me to understand the community in which she lived and to which I had just moved. The pain in her voice told me she needed to tell me his exact words, to taste its poison. I needed to hear it to know more precisely just how much work I had to do in my new parish. I'll never forget that conversation, and neither will she.

It is a grievous disservice when media organizations fail to use the word in their reporting. In March, the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma was expelled after a video was broadcast of members singing a chant that included the word. Television and radio reports blurred transcripts and bleeped audio that contained the word. I wanted to hear the raw footage and found it on the Internet.

Even though I knew what to expect, the visceral impact of hearing these college students singing "There will never be a n----- SAE, there will never be a n----- SAE. You can hang 'em from a tree, but they'll never sign with me, there will never be a n----- SAE" (sung to the tune of the children's song, "If You're Happy and You Know It") was staggering.

When I heard what they actually sang, I felt the news report had robbed me of the truth and dampened the reaction that should be, and needs to be, provoked in every American who wants to eliminate the scourge of racism.

The silliest part of this debate regards who can say the word. Everyone should be free to say it. Media outlets should be required to report the truth of what is said or written by the subjects of their coverage. Writers and bloggers should use it when appropriate to their work. If the media do their job and report the full force of this word and the harm it does, then those who use it as a slur do so with full knowledge that there are consequences.

— Madison T. Shockley II is pastor of Pilgrim UCC in Carlsbad, California, and a member of the board of directors of the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial counties.