I lived in a fairly integrated neighborhood in New York and would often overhear black teenagers using the n-word in casual conversation. When I say “using” I’m understating a little. These guys were giving the n-word the most exhaustive workout I’ve ever heard, substituting it for adjectives, verbs, punctuation and proper nouns in ways it was never meant to accommodate. Taboo, incendiary, upsetting: the n-word is many things. What it isn’t is versatile.
At one point in the conversation, for instance, one of the teenagers turned to another and said “N—–r was goin’ to the n—–r, n—–r, but n—–r n—–red it up on the n—–r.” I’m not joking. That’s a direct quote. I spent the better part of five minutes walking quietly behind them parsing through all the name and place substitutions, but eventually gave up: I had no idea what the hell this kid was talking about. His friends seemed to grasp his meaning, though personally, I like to imagine the opposite is true: that they, like me, were completely lost. Their enthusiastic overuse of the n-word had started as a loud and provocative public exercise meant to embarrass guys like me and establish them as “screw-you” teens with a healthy disrespect for social mores. But it had somehow managed to get away from them by the ten-minute mark, and now they could only soldier on, helpless, none of them wanting to be the first to admit their conversation had descended into a hopeless gibberishy mess composed of a single word.
Come on now, though: “N—–r was goin’ to the n—–r”? As a swearing connoisseur, I’m sorry, that’s just lazy. If we were walking down the street and I turned to you and said “Motherfucker was going to the motherfucker, motherfucker,” I’d like to think you’d have the decency to pull me aside and tell me how ridiculous I sounded. “Your heart’s in the right place, motherfucker, but you really need to learn to swear properly before you try and do it in public, bitch.”
Because any new generation loves nothing more than to flagrantly violate the taboos of their parents—teenagers are dicks, after all—the n-word doesn’t really mean what it used to mean anymore. Admittedly, I’m positive there’s still an uncomfortably large number of ignorant hillbillies who employ the n-word in its original racist sense. But that’s the point: they’re ignorant hillbillies. For the rest of us uncool white people, who’ve grown up in an age of bestselling hip-hop albums and overpriced Sean Jean-branded leisurewear, “n—-r” managed to become a cool word for “friend” that black people get to use and we can’t, because our forebears were racist slave-owning assholes.
As a constant guilty reminder for my generation that it wasn’t too long ago that things were a lot different, it’s incredibly effective. But the fact remains that it’s the last taboo swear word on the planet, dammit, and I can’t help but feel jealous. Personally, I think it’d make huge in-roads to racial harmony if a representative body of the black community—the NAACP, perhaps—let the white community take the n-word for a spin on a designated day, with the tacit understanding that we’re only allowed to use it to address other white people. It’d give us the thrill of a whole new swear word while avoiding all the unpleasant racist history associated with it.
I can’t imagine I’d even use it that often. Mainly I just I think it’d be hilarious to sneak a “n—a, please” or two into an otherwise maudlin wedding reception toast.