John McWhorter lays out his position on the use of the n-word, a position omitted from his recent NYT column

May 5, 2021 • 10:15 am

The other day I had a small beef (a filet mignon?) about this column by John McWhorter in the New York Times (click on screenshot):

In it, McWhorter (who is black) spelled out the n-word in full 34 times while discussing its etymology, history, and his thesis that racial slurs are “the new profanity.” I thought the essay was good, but suffered from McWhorter’s refusal to explicitly say when it was okay, if ever, to write or utter the full n-word. Worse, it was a piece of arrant hypocrisy on the part of the New York Times, whose editor Dean Baquet had said in print that all that matters in the use of the n-word word is not intent but its effect on the listener or reader. And surely some readers must have beeen offended by McWhorter’s use! How did he get away with it. Well, one reason, of course, is that McWhorter is black, but that wouldn’t seem to justify the Times‘s violation of its own rule.

McWhorter apparently felt the need to explain his stand, but did so on his own website (click on screenshot below). To be fair, I suspect the NYT would not have let him give his stand in its article. So he wrote his own piece on his Substack site, It Bears Mentioning. Click on the screenshot below.

The title more or less tells you what he thinks. He begins by recounting several familiar examples of professors fired or removed from their classes for using the n-word. But not even the word itself—just something that sounded like it. Remember this?

. . . . Greg Patton had been dismissed from a class he was teaching at the University of Southern California for mentioning that in Mandarin, the equivalent of the hedging “like” in English is “nèi genèi ge” which translates as “that, that …” but sounds like, well, you know. Not only had Patton given the lecture countless times before with no problems, but – you couldn’t write this better – the class was on communication in global markets!! Yet the usual suspects went about for weeks claiming that Patton had committed a kind of “violence” added to the grinding burden that being black in modern America is.

And McWhorter of course mentions Don McNeil, the NYT science reporter fired for using the n-word merely to find out if it had really been used as a slur by a student. McWhorter of course, couldn’t have mentioned that in his NYT piece: that episode has gone done the Orwellian garbage chute.

McWhorter is concerned, of course, with the absolute refusal to distinguish the word used as a racial slur from when it was used as, say, a book title by Dick Gregory or Randall Kennedy. And like McWhorter, one senses that some of the outrage isn’t genuine:

I call this refusal performative – i.e. a put-on – because I simply cannot believe that so many people do not see the difference between using a word as a weapon and referring to the word in the abstract. I would be disrespecting them to suppose that they don’t get this difference between, say, Fuck! as something yelled and fuck as in a word referring to sexual intercourse. They understand the difference, but see some larger value in pretending that it doesn’t exist.

McWhorter argues against the “slippery slope” argument—that using the n-word will make it commonplace—noting that he knows of no word that was once a “proscribed slur” but then later came back into general usage. Can anybody imagine that heppening with the n-word?

Finally, McWhorter notices that “Negro”, not a term much seen these days, is joining the n-word pantheon, even though it’s still part of an estimable organization: “The United Negro College Fund.” (Note, too, “The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.”) If “Negro” is proscribed, we’ll have to redact a lot of Martin Luther King’s speeches and writings.

McWhorter:

We are getting to a point where a generation of Elect people will be unable to even sit through a classic witfest like the film Blazing Saddles, their religion rendering them unable to process that the use of the N-word by vicious, stupid, silly characters was written as a way of decrying racism rather than fostering it.

Actually, I would not be surprised if we are already at that point, given things one sees and hears these days. True to form, in the fall of 2020 at Bard College, freshmen began a campaign of shaming against a professor who read out not the word nigger but Negro in a discussion of Martin Luther King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail. The new idea is that even that word is profane, in being an outdated one black people no longer consider appropriate. The pretended inability to distinguish between the abusive and the antique is an indication that 2020 had been a Sunday School in Electism for these kids. They are showing that they have learned their lesson in suspending basic intelligence in favor of virtue signalling, in the face of something that would not matter a whit to most black people themselves.

Is there anyone who hasn’t thought that at least some of the outrage about such stuff is indeed performative (remember the demonized Kimono exhibit at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts)?

Is there no way to use the n-word without it stirring up a hornet’s nest? Must we completely avoid the fact that racial slurs are, in fact, part of American history, odious though they were? What that leads to is redaction of books like this book by Joseph Conrad, pointed out by a reader:

Now (click for the Amazon link, thought the book, which is real, may be a conservative tweak of liberalism).

 

At the end, McWhorter sees the performative outrage as a way for the elect to gain power. Remember, the word “racist” carries an enormous amount of power, even when used against nonracists. There is no response you can make to being called a racist that is acceptable to whom McWhorter calls “the elect.”

McWhorter’s final words ring deeply true to some of us:

Many ask why black people give whites the power to harm us so easily with this word. I for one have never and never will see it as a badge of strength to announce to white America that uttering a sequence of sounds will send me into therapy. I’d be embarrassed if it did, and that is what I call Black Power.

But I know I am missing the point. This performative transformation of the N-word into a taboo term affords a kind of power: black Elects get a way of getting back at whites by destroying their careers; white Elects spectating get to show they aren’t racists by cheering on the witch-hunting. To these people all of this feels healthy, active, restoring, noble.

But the problem is that while it may feel that way to them, to the rest of us – among whom are legions of thoroughly reasonable, intelligent, concerned, and sensitive persons of all races  – this new take on the N-word looks paranoid, fake, and mean.

What kind of antiracism is that?

And how have we come to this kind of tribalism and divisiveness?

33 thoughts on “John McWhorter lays out his position on the use of the n-word, a position omitted from his recent NYT column

  1. McWhorter does a wonderful job of countering “anti-racism” in the world of ideas but I don’t get the feeling that the Woke (I’m not going to use “Elect”) don’t take up the challenges he throws down. I know they have a challenge-deflector built into their philosophy but I would still think some on the edges would take up the discussion. Has anyone seen much response to McWhorter’s articles from the Woke or Woke-adjacent?

    1. No, but I don’t really follow them. But it would be consistent that they either studiously ignore it or simply categorize McWhorter as a member of the MAGA hat wearing right. They do that for many liberals who publicly disagree with them.

    2. I remember that a few years ago Ta-Nehisi Coates and McWhorter had a debate about hip-hop music, but I’m not aware of any engagement between the two of them since. Coleman Hughes invited Ibram Kendi to a debate a year ago, and Kendi has yet to accept. As we’ve touched on previously in this forum, it’s not worth it for Coates, Kendi, Robin DiAngelo, or Nicole Hannah-Jones to have any engagement with McWhorter, Hughes, or Glenn Loury, because they, the Woke/Elect, have everything to lose and nothing to gain.

    3. People like Kendi and DiAngelo won’t debate him, and McWhorter has said he’s not aiming to convert the Woke, either, as they’re fixed in their views. He’s aiming at the open-minded, but of course debates with the Elect could foster that, too. It’s very weird that people like Kendi and DiAngelo won’t debate their views.

  2. I’m reminded of Steven Pinker’s talk at Google about “The Stuff of Thought”, when an audience member said that he’d just done most of the swearing that had ever been done in the room, Pinker laughed and said, “But I insist that I don’t swear, I talk ABOUT swearing.” And everyone got his point, or if they didn’t, no one said so.

  3. Responding to Paul Topping:

    Has anyone seen much response to McWhorter’s articles from the Woke or Woke-adjacent?

    I recall that in such discourse it is the people who are on the fence (Woke-adjacent, as you put it well) that one has a chance to reach. I forgot if I read this first from McWhorter himself or in a New Atheism context.

    Someone needs to speak up against creeping Elect societal intrusions in general. McWhorter is well-credentialed, well-positioned, and (sad as it matters) unassailably pigmented to do so.

  4. Excellent write-up!
    First, regarding the Univ of Southern Cal story about the Mandarin word/phrase….
    My parents are from Poland so they mostly spoke Polish everywhere they went. As my mom was shopping with her Polish friend in Goldblatt’s in Hammond, Indiana decades ago, her friend asked the sales lady in English if she had a certain item in stock. The sales lady said they were all out. My mom’s Polish friend then turned to my mom and said “Tak musi byc.” This roughly translates to “that’s the way it must be.” But “byc” sounds exactly like “bitch.” The sales lady thought that my mom’s friend was calling her a bitch and called her out for it. My mom explained the translation and they all laughed. So I find this just as ridiculous to get bent out of shape over.

    I applaud McWhorter for this next statement because I believe that you can reach more people through humor. You can make your point through comedy because it often lands more solidly than if you were to try to pound it into someone with a hammer. Additionally, I agree there is a difference between using a word as a weapon and referring to it in the abstract.
    “We are getting to a point where a generation of Elect people will be unable to even sit through a classic witfest like the film Blazing Saddles, their religion rendering them unable to process that the use of the N-word by vicious, stupid, silly characters was written as a way of decrying racism rather than fostering it.”

    1. That’s a good story. I don’t remember using “bitch” in any interaction but, if I ever do and I’m called out on it, I hope I remember to tell them it’s just Polish.

    2. Yes—sharp, pointed humor is a potent weapon against pretentious/pious nonsense. Mencken had a great aphorism about that: ‘one horselaugh is worth a thousand syllogisms’.

      1. So true! I had a friend that was very outspoken and often ruffled feathers of guys much bigger than him. He said that he survived such encounters by flashing his “shit-eating grin”.

    3. “Seal” (the animal) in French is phoque. Pronounced exactly the way your teenager wants to pronounce it. 🙂

    1. Apparently “dropping an F-bomb” is perfectly acceptable nowadays, but did you just drop an “N-bomb” there, Mark? 😉

  5. …he knows of no word that was once a “proscribed slur” but then later came back into general usage. Can anybody imagine that heppening with the n-word?

    A brief googling of “18th century slurs” led me to “addlepate” and “fopdoodle”, which were evidently taken as serious insults in the past but obviously not today. And if you look up George Carlin’s “seven words you can’t say on TV,” you’ll find that several of them are barely considered curse words at all any more (examples, “piss” and “tits”).

    So, I can imagine it. But probably not soon.

    It’s also worth pointing out that the proscription of various words isn’t even standard across English-speaking cultures. Best example is probably c**t, which in the U.S. is considered so bad as to be essentially proscribed (and why I *’d it), but AIUI in the UK is used much more casually. And the UK’s “take the piss” phrase obviously uses another word we Yanks have proscribed at least in the past as very rude, but which they don’t.

    It doesn’t bother me that the n-word is proscribed. If it’s insulting to a large portion of the populace, no problem, I won’t use it. But looking at this from the perspective of history, I don’t see it as hurting the language or hurting my speech. It’s a social convention on what counts as rude vs. polite speech, those conventions have been different in the past, and I’m sure they’ll be different in the future.

    1. I seem to recall that in US English the word “behind” was considered very impolite not so long ago, even in perfectly normal usages not relating to posteriors, and that the euphamism “out back” was the acceptable wording ?

      1. Off topic but your mention reminded me about an old physics joke on the naming of quark pairs. The story goes that everyone agreed on the names up, down, charm, and strange. But Europeans wanted to name the last two ‘truth’ and ‘beauty’ while the Americans wanted to name them ‘top’ and ‘bottom.’ The joke was, the European physicists were on a search for the naked truth, while Americans were looking for bare bottoms.

    2. Bully! That’s very white of you, old chap. People these days are far more freaked when someone utters that word than they are at the racist attributes it encodes. It’s no different than Y*H. Taboo names. This s* has become so fetishized that I’m gonna call it the Hexagrammaton.

  6. From McWhorter’s piece:

    A friend jokes to me that somewhere in America somebody is getting fired for referring to niggling details. Yet I can genuinely imagine this happening at this point, as likely can most of you.

    This recalls the several public contretemps over the past couple decades regarding the use of the word “niggardly.” (“Niggardly” is not a word I’ve ever used with any regularity, but it has its place, and I continue using it occasionally, although I tend to limit it to instances in which I’m reasonably confident that the listener or reader will understand its meaning and derivation.)

    It also recalls the central incident in the novel The Human Stain by Philip Roth (himself the subject of a recent post by our host). The novel’s protagonist, Coleman Silk (a classics professor at a fictional college seemingly part of the Five College Consortium, and also a light-skinned black man who’s been passing as a Jew his entire professional life), asks of his classics class whether a pair of students who haven’t attended his lectures during the first half of the semester are “spooks” (in the sense of ghosts). Turns out, the two students are black and the word is misinterpreted as a racial slur, leading to Prof. Silk becoming a campus pariah.

    According to Roth, this plot device was based on an incident that actually occurred to a friend of his, Melvin Tumin, a professor of sociology at Princeton.

  7. Try having to read aloud (aka “voice”) passages for deaf and hard of hearing children. I half-expected to be fired for reading an urban district-approved story on the civil rights era, especially since I had to explain that African-American, black, colored, and negro all meant the same thing, just at different times in history. The child, who is black, had no idea what I was talking about. It was all very uncomfortable. Every day at school is uncomfortable these days.

    I’d also recommend listening to The Glenn Show from March 5, In Defense of Knowledge, where McWhorter and Loury discuss the anti-racism math being foisted upon some Oregon school districts.
    The March 12 episode, Glenn Loury’s Intellectual Origins is also good. His gives a defense for reading the classics and other formative works for western civilization. I don’t always agree with him, he’s further right than I, but he always makes me think deeper about a subject.

    1. “since I had to explain that African-American, black, colored, and negro all meant the same thing,”
      In South Africa they don’t mean the same thing at all. ‘Black’ means Bantu, and generally speaking a Bantu language at home. ‘Coloured’ means Khoi or of double African-European ancestry, and generally speaking Afrikaans at home,

      1. It is interesting to note that one can quite easily change one’s race. It is often as easy as crossing a border.

        What really bothers me is seeing so many immigrant children adopting the woke leftista race ideology, but it’s no surprise as they are force-fed it in schools by people who can’t grasp that an African child from DR Congo has little in common with an African-American child from St. Louis. It is another for of anti-racist racism I see far too often.

  8. John McWhorter and our host are surely aware, although they don’t mention it, that most of the
    tropes and behaviors of the woke Elect are strictly performative. I believe this is true of a large part of
    what we take as “politics”. Many choose one or another political stance because of how they think they will look wearing it.

    1. Yes, but if you say, “A lot/most of these people aren’t seriously offended,” it sounds bad, for you’re questioning somebody’s motives or “truths” and that’s just not done these days.

      1. Indeed – McWhorter was very careful in his wording, whilst also making his own position very clear on the matter.

      2. It’s always dangerous to question whether someone else’s feelings are legitimate. Instead, we should question whether anyone’s feelings should always be respected. In general, no one should be able to squelch all discussion by imposing their personal feelings. On the other hand, respecting someone’s feelings is still something to be considered. Assuming that we can’t prove that the Woke aren’t offended, where do we draw the line?

        1. I think it is a gradual process. We each have a point at which it becomes obvious to us that our own empathy, manners and aversion to conflict are being used against us by people who only seek power.
          A reasonable person in our society might well assume that whatever the woke are screeching about must be terribly upsetting to them, or else they would not make such a fuss. If it is that important to them, well, perhaps if we appease them we can get back to normal. When you see them just moving on to the next ridiculous thing, and becoming at least if not more enraged about it, and the next and the next, it becomes pretty clear that they are either being insincere, or they are totally unreasonable people.
          Any person who has raised a child has seen that emerging behavior.

          I guess the question I wish to pose is “If we do not stop them, at what point will they stop on their own?” I don’t think there is any obvious reasonable stopping point. If the past can serve as an example, sometimes it ends up with old women sorting through a mass grave, trying to identify their family members by looking at scraps of clothing or dental work.
          I don’t really think it is at all likely to go that far here. Not because they lack the potential for such acts, but because they are a long way from acquiring anywhere near that sort of power.
          On the other hand, when we are dealing with toddlers, once they learn where the boundaries of acceptable behavior lie, they tend to be happier people.

    2. “How they think they will look wearing it.”

      This is how I’ve come to think of many external marks of religious observance like hijabs, crucifixes around the neck, fur hats, turbans, or curly sideburns. If I think of them as in-your-face declarations of a stupid belief system (and its conservative politics), I find myself riled up inside. But if I think of them as fashion choices (taking fashion in the broadest sense as fitting in with or signaling to a target audience), then I find I kinda like many of them because they seem fun and stylish, and they break the monotony of mainstream fashion choices. Or at least I don’t object to these religious fashion choices in the same way I don’t mind bluejeans with the knees deliberately ripped out.

  9. “Many ask why black people give whites the power to harm us so easily with this word. I for one have never and never will see it as a badge of strength to announce to white America that uttering a sequence of sounds will send me into therapy. I’d be embarrassed if it did, and that is what I call Black Power.”

    To use a social media trope: ^^^^ THIS! A million times!

    I simply can’t escape that thought when I see the “N-word” imbued with such destructive power. It’s not passive; it’s active, it’s a choice. And it doesn’t seem to have any good consequences, except for the pernicious “goods” for the Elect noted by McWhorter.

    It reminds me of the very astute argument I just heard from Coleman Hughes, where he pointed out that the instilling in to black people from birth the dogmatic belief they are perpetual subjects of “Systematic Racism” is to effectively inculcate a form of emotional trauma that self-perpetuates, presuming the trauma they feel is of course due to Living With Systematic Racism.

    (Which, I would hope it’s not necessary to point out, isn’t to deny the existence of actual racism).

  10. I went into town today, which I avoid when possible.
    What happened is that a reasonably well dressed young lady came up to me at a gas station, and told me that she was driving home, ran out of gas, forgot her wallet, that sort of thing.
    I was reminded of your comment here about legitimacy.
    Most of us are sympathetic the first time we hear that story. After we have heard it enough times, we tend to harden our hearts to it, and come to realize that it is an addict’s dodge.
    My Mom gave a young couple $20 for that story once, and the same couple tried the same thing a week later, in the same parking lot. She was so angry to have been taken in.

    Of course, people sometimes run out of gas, and sometimes leave their cash behind. It is a lot harder for those folks to get help these days, because others have learned what sort of situations people encounter where they legitimately need and are likely to receive help, and just boldly lie to people in order to scam them.

    Some people experience racism. However, when I hear the claim these days, I assume that they are lying to me, because they are addicted to victimhood or the submission of others. That is how I receive the “out of gas” story as well. My default position is to be very highly skeptical, unless some sort of reasonable proof is offered.

    I ran out of gas last year, in the middle of nowhere. My 84 year old gas gauge chose a terrible time to fail. An elderly couple stopped, and drove me well over an hour to get cans and gas and get me back to my car. Their stopping for me was an act of trust that may well become very rare in the future. It upsets me that people are willing to destroy that important part of our society in order to indulge their personal vices.

    I know that is a bit of a tangent, but it does go back to an abuse of trust.

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