The N-Word: A History

University students inside a bus, dressed in suits, one of them standing and the others sitting down were singing in unison the following phrases: “You can hang them from a tree, but they’ll never sign with me. There will never be a n***** it SAE.”

This describes the video uploaded to YouTube by “Unheard,” a black group at Oklahoma University. The members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity chapter at Oklahoma University filmed themselves singing a racist song where they used the n-word in a derogatory manner. The president of the University of Oklahoma made the decision to close the fraternity in this institution because of it.

The SAE controversy and other recent events have clashed the opinions between the oppositions. The Washington Post has a webpage dedicated to the n-word and its controversies and these are some of people’s comments about this issue:

“When someone uses the N word, he or she should be reprimanded.”

“For today’s youth, the word just means dude or buddy.”

“Because African Americans use the word, it’s okay for everyone to use it.”

This is an issue happening not only in Oklahoma but also in other places in the United States. Racism is still a problematic topic in this country. Just like these fraternity students used the n-word to address African Americans, we still hear people using the word in their vocabulary, even on the McDaniel College campus.

Dr. Richard M. Smith, an assistant professor of sociology at McDaniel, explained that the n-word has a deeply negative connotation. According to Smith, the word was used to terrorize African Americans and to terrorize groups that did not fit into what was meant to be historically “white”.

According to the Washington Post, one of the biggest examples is the movie “Birth of a Nation” (1915). This movie portrayed the African Americans as dangerous people having the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) as the heroes of the story. This movie, along with other events, spread the n-word throughout popular culture.

Smith also talked about the new trend for hip hop artists to use the word. Many African American singers use the n-word in their songs. For example, hip hop artist Terrence Howard believes that using the n-word should be acceptable.

Smith said, “Nowadays younger people or people in the hip hop community see the word as empowering or they use the word to refer to a friend.”

Smith also explained that this word still exists because racism still exists and racial oppression in America has not changed.

“Racism is embedded in our system and the institution within our society,” said Smith. “We were founded in this kind of atmosphere… People came over and took the lands of others that were already here. Then, they brought other groups over and coded them as different and uncivilized, and later on as different races or species.”

Smith also said that the reason why this word is used by some African Americans is because some of them have “internalized the language of the oppressor.” This is a concept that is used to explain that some people use the word that has been said to them regularly because it has been embedded in their minds and they believe it as if it were true.

“Sometimes if you repeatedly hear something said about you, it becomes a part of you,” Smith said. “Humans, in general, would internalize things that are said to us or label us.”

Smith explained that the n-word has preserved itself over time and has been repeated so much to African Americans that now some of them use it, even to talk about themselves. He also said that however,  only a small percentage of the African American population uses the n-word and that most African Americans do not use it to talk about themselves.

Jennifer Jiménez Maraña, the director of the Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs, suggests that it is not appropriate to use the n-word.

“Because of the long history that it involves, it should not be part of the vocabulary,” says Jiménez Maraña.

Jiménez Marañaunderstands that there are disagreements and different opinions about it. Therefore, she encourages students of McDaniel to start a dialogue around it, where everyone can think critically about the word and its usage.

Jiménez Maraña said that she has also been talking to students about the usage of the word on the McDaniel campus and some of the African Americans students feel offended when people use it.

The task of ending the use of the n-word is not confined to McDaniel’s campus. A Washington Post article about the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) said that the NAACP is campaigning to “bury” the n-word. This campaign encourages people to stop using it, and when that happens, it would help the process of “burying” it.

Jazzy Williams-Smith an African American student at McDaniel said that the N word should not be used by anyone, even if that person is African American.

“I do not allow anyone to address me that way because it bothers me,” Williams-Smith said. “This is one of the reasons I do not listen to rap music.”

Of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon controversy, Williams-Smith said that this topic is not an isolated issue because it happens in so many different sororities and fraternities on other campuses, including here at McDaniel College.

“That is important for people to remember and if they are going to change, they have to change on a global scale,” said Williams-Smith.