Arguably no word in the English language will spark a controversy in the United States as quickly as the N-word will. On one hand, utterance of the racial slur has damaged the careers of the rich and famous. On the other, it has helped to propel countless rappers to superstardom. Because the word was historically used to denigrate African Americans, reaction to the word varies widely. Some say the word is now a term of endearment; others argue that it’s impossible to detach the world from its horrific past. This overview highlights both sides of the N-word debate as well as controversies related to the slur.
Proponents of the N-word have devised a number of different justifications for using it. Whites often argue that if blacks can say it, why can’t everyone else? Other whites, most famously John Mayer, think they have a “pass” to say the word because African Americans like them and realize they mean no harm. Some blacks argue that the African-American community has taken the sting out of the word and that the slur now represents a term of endearment rather than a term of hatred. Lastly, many rappers argue that dropping the “er” from the word changes its meaning to one of affection between African Americans. On the surface, the above reasons may seem like reasonable excused to use the N-word, but holes exist in each of these arguments.
A number of high-profile African Americans—from Oprah Winfrey to Bill Cosby to Cornel West—have spoken out against the N-word. Why do these prominent blacks object to a slur that many now argue has become a term of endearment? They argue that it’s impossible to separate the word from its ugly racial past. They say the N-word was used for centuries to degrade African Americans and strip them of their humanity. “When I hear the N-word, I still think about every black man who was lynched—and the N-word was the last thing he heard,” Winfrey explained in 2009. She’s not alone. The NAACP even held a funeral for the N-word to inspire blacks to stop using it.
A number of celebrities from a variety of racial backgrounds have landed in hot water for saying the word. Puerto Rican actress and singer Jennifer Lopez sparked controversy after she used a slang version of the slur in a song rapper Ja Rule penned for her. “Seinfeld” actor Michael Richards sparked outrage after he was filmed at a comedy club assaulting African-American hecklers with the N-word. Troubled star Charlie Sheen curiously used the N-word to insult white actress Denise Richards, whom he was married to at the time. Evidently, he was looking for some way, any way, to insult her. Find out which other celebrities have spewed the racial slur with this list.
“Shakespeare in Love” actress Gwyneth Paltrow sparked controversy in June 2012 after tweeting the name of rap song “N---as in Paris” by Jay-Z and Kanye West as part of a caption to a photo of Paltrow with Jay-Z, his wife, Beyonce, and others in the City of Lights. A variety of rappers and hip-hop personalities rushed to defend Paltrow from critics who said that the Tweet was insensitive. Rapper Nas, singer The-Dream and hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons are just a few of the African Americans in the music industry who came to Paltrow’s aid. But were they wrong to do so? Rapper Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest fame said Paltrow at the very least should have issued an apology to anyone she offended because of the tweet.