Roach: That word

Lately, Madison has had some issues with the N-word.
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Lately, Madison has had some issues with the N-word.

First, in one of the most Madison moments ever, an African American school district employee was fired last October for telling an African American student not to use the N-word when referring to him. The black employee was fired, then reinstated less than a week later.

A few months later, a white University of Wisconsin–Madison men’s basketball strength coach used the word when quoting an athlete of color. He opted to resign rather than be fired.

And in early 2018 in Monona Grove, the parents of a black high school freshman student objected to the inclusion of Harper Lee’s classic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” in the English curriculum. Due to the many appearances of the N-word in the book, they demanded it not be required reading. The Monona Grove School Board rejected their request.

In each of these incidents, the N-word was used in context and not as a slur. But there was controversy regardless.

Meanwhile, a variation of the N-word can be heard multiple times a minute in some of the most popular songs, sung and rapped by black artists but rarely by white artists. It is also socially forbidden for a white person to sing along to those songs, which makes midnight at the karaoke bar a delicate dance.

That word was the worst thing you could say in our white household when I was growing up. The words “colored” and “Negro” were the more enlightened terms used when referring to black Americans. My children wince upon hearing those words even though the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the United Negro College Fund are still titles of reputable charities. Such is our clumsy struggle with words and race.

I have had mixed views on the new usage of the N-word. There is the shock over how black artists have reclaimed it. Then there’s the consternation over the freedom of speech issue that arises when one group of people can use a word but if others use the same word, they lose their jobs.

In my younger working life in Chicago, one of my bosses was an African American woman. I was writing and directing pieces for the TV show Ebony/Jet Showcase. She asked me in casual conversation if I had ever used the N-word. I told her that I might have because Richard Pryor’s remarkable comedy album “That N*****’s Crazy” came out when I was in college. Not only had I probably pronounced the title, I presumed the title was said out loud by the folks who awarded it the Grammy for Best Comedy Album of 1974. She laughed.

But today the word is clearly off limits to most white people. So, what do we say to white folks who still ask “Why can black people say the N-word and I can’t?” The black writer Ta-Nehisi Coates had an answer when asked that question.

He said his wife calls him “honey” but it would be inappropriate for other women to refer to him that way. He said his wife and a female friend call each other “bitch,” but Coates does not “join in.” He said a white friend calls his getaway home in the woods his “white trash cabin,” a phrase Coates also does not feel free to use.

The first part of Coates’ explanation wasn’t intellectually satisfying to me. After all, a Civil War that cost an estimated 750,000 lives wasn’t fought over the words “honey,” “bitch” or “white trash.” To equate the use of the N-word to the word “honey” seems to grossly diminish the historical meaning of the N-word.

Coates also noted that we still live in a nation where white folks are socialized to think they own everything, including cultural terms. For me, that argument was convincing.

It is a small price to pay, for instance, that after Native Americans were forced off land they occupied for centuries that they be allowed to build casinos and spear fish while I, as a white man, can’t. So it is also perfectly fine for black America to tell me there is a word I cannot use.

White Americans kidnapped, shackled, transported, tortured and bought and sold African Americans for centuries.

And after all that was abolished, white America persisted in diminishing the role of African Americans in our democracy. That practice continues today.

So, after centuries of black people being forced to do what white people tell them to do, isn’t it past time that white people shut up and do what they’re told by black Americans when it comes to the use of one single word in our language?

Yeah. It is.

John Roach, a Madison-based television producer, writes this column monthly. Reach him at