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cnn: debate on the n-word

In this segment, CNN host Don Lemon leads a panel discussion on the use of the “n-word” by talk radio host Dr. Laura Schlessinger.”Dr. Laura,” as she is known on the air, gives advice to callers about relationships and other social problems.  On August 10, 2010, a caller who self-identified as a black woman married to a white man, criticized Schlessinger for her use of the “n-word.” Schlessinger responded that the caller had “too much sensitivity…and not enough sense of humor” and defended her use of the term by comparing herself to “black comedians.” Lemon’s guests include Jill Merritt, founder of the Abolish the N-Word Project, John Ridley, writer and commentator, and Tim Wise, a white anti-racism activist. All three guests agree that the problem of racism in the U.S. goes far beyond simply using the “n-word.” Lemon speculates that discussion of the term–who can say it, when, and where–may actually distract people from the systemic forms of racism that persist in society. Wise observes that whether or not the term should be used is something for black people to sort out and that white people should not be involved. Merritt rejects all uses of the word, arguing that it is fundamentally racist and cannot be recuperated or stripped of its associations with history and violence.


John Ridley laments that a conversation about race will not be had in the U.S. “It would be great to have a conversation about race,” he remarks, “but the people who need it can’t or won’t have it.” Why might this conversation be difficult or impossible? Under what conditions could a conversation about race and racism take place? Can a racially homogeneous group — white Americans, for instance — have serious discussions about racism? Why or why not? How might a conversation about racism play out differently among different groups of people?

Jill Merritt argues that the “n-word” cannot be stripped of its racist meaning. She says that it is a fundamentally racist word. Are there some words that should be abandoned because their meanings are too fraught with violence and hatred? Or does this preserve their hateful power? If you hear someone using this word, how have you reacted in the past? Do you agree with Merritt?

Tim Wise compares the use of the “n-word” to other terms used to degrade certain groups of people, such as “redneck,” which is applied to poor Southern whites. What does he mean when he says that he is not offended when Jeff Foxworthy makes jokes about “rednecks” but he would be offeneded if Jerry Seinfeld did? Aren’t Foxworthy and Seinfeld both white? How are they different? Do you agree that this logic can be applied to the use of racist epithets against and among black people?


Discussing the use of the “n-word” will require considerable scaffolding for students of any age. Depending on the ethnic and racial makeup of your classroom and the trust that students have with each other, these conversations can play out very differently. Please also see the related clip titled, “Oprah on Anderson Cooper/N Word.”

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