On Biden, McWhorter, and the n-word

February 13, 2022 • 12:45 pm

John McWhorter has written a lot about the “n-word” in his New York Times pieces, and his new column should be the final word on it. But of course it won’t be. Perhaps McWhorter had ha his say, but the critics will keep up the mobbing and pressure on those who use the word in even a didactic sense.  Those people, including NYT science columnist Don McNeil and a Chicago high-school teacher, are almost inevitably fired, no matter how long ago the word was used.

The crucial aspect of this mobbing is that intent doesn’t matter. It makes no difference to the Woke Word Police whether you use the word as a racist slur (that’s never okay), to quote Mark Twain, or in a law-school exam question as an example of a defamatory slur. All that matters is that the word was uttered by a white person.  But of course, as McWhorter notes in his latest piece, intent does matter, and always has. Here’s how we know that. Black people use the word repeatedly, both in rap videos and as a sign of affection. Dave Chapelle uses it as a synonym for fellow blacks. Those are okay, because the intent isn’t scurrilous! So intent does matter!

Click to read. I’ll give just a few quotes. (McWhorter mentions another case about the Slate podcaster Mike Pesca who was fired for using the word twice on his podcast as a “mention” rather than as a “usage”—the distinction that McWhorter draws between didactic uses and racial slurs. People are getting fired for “mentions” as if they were slinging slurs.

Headings are mine; McWhorter’s words are indented.

Onblack fragility“:

I suppose the idea behind this new idea — that the problem isn’t just using the N-word as an insult, but uttering it in any context, including quoting someone else — is that the old approach was insufficiently antiracist. But it is a strange kind of antiracism that requires all of us to make believe that Black people cannot understand the simple distinction between an epithet and a citation of one. Missing that distinction, or pretending to, is at best coarse. And we are being instructed to carry on as if this coarse approach is a kind of sophistication.

Plus, the assumption that Black people are necessarily as insulted by the mention as by the use implies a considerable fragility on our part. An implication that I reject and resent. If all someone has to do to ruin your day is say a word — even in the process of decrying it — your claim on being a strong person becomes shaky. I made the same point last week in a somewhat different context, and I realize that some are affronted by my calling their fortitude into question, but I am mystified by how comfortable so many of us are in giving white people this power over us.

On the performative nature of overreaction:

If all this falling to pieces served some larger purpose, perhaps there would be room for classifying it as a useful new standard. If people thought, for example, that it would help make Congress pass a reparations bill or force the Supreme Court’s right-leaning majority to rethink the Voting Rights Act, then they’d be making some kind of sense.

But none of that will happen, and this real life is all we have. Hypersensitivity for its own sake is self-destructive. It exerts a drag on the momentum of engaging in actual political activism, and even in our imbibing the wonders of this existence that we are all granted a spell of.

Why the use/mention distinction is valuable and why the “intent doesn’t matter” trope is risible:

But acquaintance with the straightforward use/mention difference is, or should be, a badge of membership in a modern society. Anyone who’s willing to process Black people referring to one another with the N-word, as a term of endearment or a form of word empowerment (and many, including me, are, even if we don’t use it this way ourselves) understands that a spoken or written instance of the N-word can mean more than one thing. As such, they should be able to appreciate, if not embrace, that quoting a savory rap lyric or comedian’s routine that includes the word or just referring to the word to note its prior application are not the same thing as deploying it as an insult.

Our current nervous social contract on this word requires us to act as if there is no such difference. But all of us, Black, white and otherwise, can see past this. The sky won’t fall if we admit it. It’s time to stop putting people in the stocks for mentioning the N-word when they’ve done nothing history will judge as wrong.


Reuters has an article on Biden’s utterances, which, sadly, have been turned into videos in which he appears to use the word repeatedly as a racial slur. That’s heinous.  These “fake news” videos were, of course, produced by acolytes of Trump: “The Committee to Defend the President”. Reuters, acting as Snopes, says what we have here is a MENTION, not a usage. And that’s clear from this 45-second video.

Two seconds into the [fake, pro-Trump] video, the narrator says that Biden “repeated the N-word twice on camera,” while on-screen text reads, “We don’t need any more [N-word] bigshots” – C-SPAN 6/5/1985”

As presented, the video implies that the words spoken by Biden were his own opinions, when actually he was quoting a white legislator and trying to expose the comments as racist.

It is not the first time that this quote is taken out of context to criticize Biden ( here ). Reuters Fact Check recently debunked a misleading compilation of Biden footage that included this clip, visible here

The alleged quote was part of a confidential staff memorandum that Biden referenced on several occasions ( bit.ly/38kHeMo ) at William Reynolds’ nomination for becoming Associate Attorney General on June 4 and June 5, 1985. Moments captured on camera of Biden mentioning the quote are visible here ( cs.pn/2ZRBRSz , minute 1:29:15) and here ( cs.pn/3fUto6x , minute 17:14).

During the two-day hearing, Biden quoted these words from a white legislator who opposed the Louisiana redistricting plan in 1981, a case that was criticized for being biased against Black people. Biden mentioned the case to argue against Reynolds’s nomination ( here ).

The obvious aim of this post is to support of McWhorter: Biden is using the word didactically, as a “mention” that is, in fact, meant to cast aspersions on Reynolds. Biden should suffer no opprobrium for this. But, you know, if it wasn’t Biden but an obscure reporter whose utterances were uncovered after a few decades, he might be fired.

I’d like to ask those who maintain that “intent doesn’t matter” if Biden’s usage here is morally equivalent to him using the n-word as an insulting racial slur. Would they say “yes”? No rational person would agree, and I don’t think Biden’s impeachment is impending. It’s just that when the current liberal President is shown to have used the n-word in the past, and in the way shown above, the distinction between “mention” and “usage” suddenly becomes very clear.

31 thoughts on “On Biden, McWhorter, and the n-word

  1. Where’s Dick Gregory when you need him?

    And BTW, has the Woke Brigade gone after Pulp Fiction yet? If not, why not?

    1. The use of the n-word by Tarantino’s character in “The Bonnie Situation” segment of Pulp Fiction was defendant by Randall Kennedy, a black professor of law at Harvard, in his 2002 book about the word — still, to my mind, the best thing ever written on the subject.

  2. I’d like to see a full-throated defense of a prohibition against any use of the n-word that goes beyond a dogmatic assertion. Then you could have a real back and forth and hopefully drill down deep enough to where both sides might learn something. Anyone have a reference or link?

    1. The problem there is any taboo can be dismissed as a “dogmatic assertion” by the side which doesn’t believe in that taboo. Any attempt to make a defense of a taboo is only going to go around the fundamental disagreement as to whether it’s a sacred area or not, and to the strength of the prohibition of it.

  3. Biden’s impeachment will never happen with a Democratic controlled House of Representatives, but it may very well happen if the Republicans take over the House after this November’s election (which is a near certainty). Following Trump’s orders, the Republicans will find any excuse, no matter how flimsy it will be, to impeach Biden. This will be Trump’s revenge. However, Biden will not be convicted by the Senate since a 2/3 majority will be impossible for the Republicans to secure.

  4. From McWhorter’s piece:

    Pesca seems to have been judged as rendering the workplace unsafe — in the parlance of our times — and his podcast is now on another platform.

    McWhorter’s a pretty serious guy, but he’s got a dry sense of humor, too. It made me laugh to beat the band, to see our esteemed linguist slyly sampling The Big Lebowski:

  5. Floating this strategy: let’s all resume using the actual actual word — not the ‘n-word’ crutch — when speaking didactically. Blow the lid off the thing. Woke or Trumpite will then have to either say everyone is a bigot, or … stop trying to construct didactic use into deliberate bigoted insult.

        1. It’s been said before, not just by me. Guy Gibson’s dog was one instance. But it’s such an ugly word in so many ways, there should be a really good reason.

          1. Yes, I see your usage now on a recent previous page here. I simply did not want to do so without a green light from The Host. However, as you say, there should be a good reason, and I won’t until I have one.

            1. We should strive for less ugliness in our discourse. At a counter-protest in Ottawa this weekend, a person was holding a Sharpie sign that said “Gas the Unvaccinated.” (Antifa must be waking up; there was someone else waving the old hammer-and-sickle flag of the USSR.)
              How could someone write something like that with his/her own hand? That’s just ugly.

  6. Also …

    “These [Biden] “fake news” videos were, of course, produced by acolytes of Trump: “The Committee to Defend the President”.

    For balance, the recent heinous quick-cut video smearing Joe Rogan as a horrid racist was produced by acolytes of Progressives/Wokes, namely “Patriot Takes,” which is funded by a Democratic SuperPack, “MidasTouch.

  7. I’ve come to oppose the virtual ban on the use of the n-word, because I think it sets a bad precedent for censorship, in general. One we say that a word can be banned, then we’ve accepted that there can be limits on free expression based merely on popular sentiment.

  8. Wordolatry on the Left includes not only forbidden badwords, but also sacred goodwords. When the Bolsheviks dispersed the democratically elected Constituent Assembly in January of 1918, the nature of their dictatorship became crystal clear, as Mussolini, for one, understood. Nonetheless, their ritual use of the magic word “Socialism” kept a significant part of the western Left entranced for two generations.

  9. What I would like to see is a reputable survey firm polling black people on the the use-mention distinction, including examples like UIC’s Jason Kilborn. It is not clear to me that you would get a majority of black respondents agreeing that intent and context should not matter.

  10. The word has been accorded magical, incantatory properties, though one suspects few people *truly* believe that. McWhorter has been steady and sane on this and many other issues. He’s my guidestar on many “woke” issues, and he is, in fact, a liberal in the best sense of the word.

    Also, if you are interested in how language works and evolves, I highly recommend his Great Courses classes on linguistics and his excellent “Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever,” which examines how and why humans use “profanity” and “swear” words.

    P.S. I listened to a New York Times The Daily podcast with hosts Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris, both Black, about the “n word” in 2021. I was amazed that Wortham discussed how she felt almost a compulsion to use the word when younger *because* it was taboo, but could not step back to see that the current lunacy over the word is making it ever more taboo and giving it ever more power.

  11. I agree 100% with John McWhorter on this.

    It is amazing how the status of the n-word has changed in the last couple of decades. I remember watching the movie Office Space, which came out in 1999 and featured this song:

    “Damn, it feels good to be a gangsta
    A real gangsta-ass [person] plays his cards right
    A real gangsta-ass [person] never runs his mouth
    Cause real gangsta-ass [people] don’t start fights…”

    I thought the movie was hilarious, and I liked singing along to the (uncensored) version of the above song. I knew, of course, that the n-word was a horrible, racist insult, but in the context of this song, it was not used to insult anyone. The singer was Black, and he made it clear that “gangsta-ass [person]” was a good thing to be. But now? Any white person singing along to this song would be instantly excommunicated and cast into the outer darkness. It’s a huge change, and I don’t think it’s for the better. Also, I don’t think John McWhorter would hate me for singing along to the gangsta-ass song.

    1. Delude yourself if you like but I think you would get your face kicked in if a Black person with the physical ability to do it heard you singing along. Excommunication would be the least of your worries, more like neurosurgery and dental reconstruction.

      1. You seem to think that all or most black people are physically violent racists with poor impulse control. That’s pretty sad.

  12. “The crucial aspect of this mobbing is that intent doesn’t matter.” – J. Coyne

    The woke practice of ignoring or dismissing the intentions behind utterances is theoretically grounded in postmodern deconstructivism as represented by Jacques Derrida:

    “[F]or Derrida, the speaker’s intent has no more authority than the hearer’s interpretation. If someone says that certain features of a culture can generate problems, and I choose to interpret this statement as a dog whistle about the inferiority of that culture and take offense, Derridean analysis would deny the possibility that my offense came from a misunderstanding of what had been said. This comes from Derrida’s use of Roland Barthes’ concept of “the death of the author,” a literary theory that removes the author and their intent from consideration when analyzing a text’s meaning.

    Derrida’s solution to keeping discourses from creating and maintaining oppression is to read “deconstructively,” by looking for internal inconsistencies that reveal a text’s true intentions when the words are examined closely enough (or with an agenda). Deconstructive approaches to language often look like nitpicking at words in order to deliberately miss the point.”

    (Pluckrose, Helen, James Lindsay, and Rebecca Christiansen. /Social (In)justice./ Durham, NC: Pitchstone, 2022. pp. 31-2)

    1. Removing the Author is a living principle of the “Whole Language” movement of reading pedagogy. Ken Anderson, key guru of this, said, “The reader constructs the meaning as she reads along.” This was taken up with great enthusiasm, and the word “constructivist” is openly deployed as descriptor of the method.

      [I may have said this elsewhere here] It is not uncommon to hear Constructivists (whole language advocates) say, when pressed by a phonics person, “systematic phonics, with its drilling and authoritarian [ha!] structure, is fascist.”

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