The N-Word – Neutralising the Power to Harm With Racial Epithets


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Why Not to Use Racist Speech

Some years ago, in response to a demand that students should be able to use racist words in the interest of free speech, I heard a teacher say, quite simply, “We are not in the business of hurting people.” The BBC would agree, as they do not permit anything stronger than the euphemism “N-word” in chat-show debates.

The more the N-word is used, the less meaning it has for young people, says Whoopi Goldberg: Image by Janet Cameron

Recently, after a discussion on a chat-show on the subject, I heard some (white) students express their anxiety that any word should be banned, and that when used in context – not as an insult or a label but as a historical referent – avoiding the use of the “N-word” euphemism is unnecessary and contrived. So, does the banning of the N-word increase its impact? In an interview on the BBC programme Hardtalk, the black, award-winning actress, Whoopi Goldberg, says that this word only has power if you give it the power. “I don’t give it any power,” she says, “and if you use it, then it is at your own risk.” She continues by explaining that for teenagers using that word today, the N-word has no real meaning – at least not in the same way it would have had meaning for her grandmother.

The more it is used, the less power it has,” says Ms. Goldberg.

Adam Croom told Decoded Science: “If entities like the BBC or Decoded Science publish or air the use of a slur at all, it will very likely (though not necessarily) be interpreted derogatorily.  As an entity with legal and financial responsibilities, therefore, their safest bet is to not use slurring terms.”

As Steven Pinker concludes, it is concepts, not words, that influence people’s minds. He says, “Names for minorities will continue to change as long as people have negative attitudes towards them. We will know that we have achieved mutual respect when the names stay put.”


Croom, A. Slurs. (2011). Science Direct. Accessed February 13, 2012.

Pinker, S. The Blank Slate, The Modern Denial of Human Nature. (2002). BCA, An Imprint of Penguin Books.

Culler, J. Literary Theory. (1997). Oxford University Press.

TV Tropes. N-Word Privileges. Accessed February 13, 2012.

Whoopi Goldberg. Use the N-Word at Your Own Risk. BBC Hardtalk.  Accessed February 13, 2012.

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