Psychologist Dr. Tommy Whittler Explains Why “We” Shouldn’t Use the N-Word
by Dr. Tommy Whittler
As I listened to Black morning radio this week, most notably The Steve Harvey Morning Show and the Tom Joyner Morning Show, I am amazed that Black folks are not consumed with Paula Deen’s consistent use of the “N-word.” Nor were Blacks too put off by her longing for the good old days of plantation owners’ weddings that had Black slaves adorned in colorful outfits. Nah! Black folks have more important things to consider such as the conservative agenda of turning back voters’ rights and universities’ attempts to restrict allotments of Black students’ admission. Never mind that the majority of universities in the U.S. have less than 2% Black student enrollments, but that their football and basketball teams are 90% Black.
But Paula Deen’s fiasco conjured up an old story I read while in Virginia. This story shows that names or labels have both psychological and behavioral effects. In particular, one name or label should be eliminated from Black folks’ vocabulary.
Thomas Jefferson’s father-in-law fathered a child with one of his Black slaves. He gives the biracial little girl, Sally Hemings, to Jefferson and his wife as a wedding gift. Essentially, she is Jefferson’s wife’s half-sister and their slave. Jefferson’s wife became ill and at 15 or 16 years of age, Sally was impregnated by Jefferson. Not once, twice, or thrice, but five times she bore a child with him. On one of his trips to Paris, Jefferson took Sally. She was stunned to see people paid for their labor; consequently, Sally refused to return to the U.S. Jefferson pleaded with Sally to return by making two promises: First, he would bring their five children into the Monticello mansion instead of the shanty shack they lived; second, upon his death, she and their five children would be freed. Sally accepts the terms of this contract and returns with him to Virginia. How nice of Mr. Jefferson to be so generous!
A few years ago, a Lexington, Kentucky thoroughbred owner wanted to name his precocious filly, Sally Hemings, after this slave girl. The Jockey International Club refused to allow him to do so on the grounds that he could not get permission from the woman or her descendants. He sued to retain the name. He lost his case. I am sure that Ms. Hemings’ descendants breathed a sigh of relief. I can imagine their insult from the naming of a race horse after their prominent ancestor.
But check this out. A brewing company produced a malt liquor with 25% alcohol content and targeted it toward the Black community (beer contains about four to five percent alcohol). This malt liquor was named Power Master Malt Liquor. Black leaders protested this marketing attempt and demanded that it be taken off the market. The company conceded, but only to reposition this malt liquor to Native American Indians as Chief Crazy Horse Malt Liquor. The irony of this branding is that Chief Crazy Horse was a spiritual and political leader of a proud nation. He warned his people of the dangers of consuming alcohol. Yet, the brewing company put a likeness of him on the can and named the brand after him. His descendants sued the company and the brand was removed. I will have more to say about Native Americans in a second article I am writing about names and labels.
I conclude this essay with a humorous anecdote that many have probably heard. I first heard this story as I attended a Black Student Awards dinner at a major university. Along with 300 Black students, faculty, and parents, a handful of White administrators were also in attendance. To start the ceremony, a young Black administrator warmed the audience with the following story.
A large commercial plane encountered difficulties after ascending to its required altitude. The pilot told the co-pilot to tell the 230 passengers that, unless passengers’ luggage was thrown from the plane, the plane would crash. Passengers readily obliged to have the luggage discarded. The plane steadied a bit, but the pilot told the co-pilot the plane was still over-burdened. The co-pilot shares with the passengers the pilot’s new survival plan; namely, that some passengers would have to sacrifice their lives by jumping out of the plane without parachutes. To be fair about the selection process, the jumps would be alphabetical. The co-pilot asked, “Are there any African-Americans on the plane?” Despite there being 25 or so such fliers, no hands were raised. Befuddled, the co-pilot then asked, “Are there any Black people on the plane?” The other passengers looked dumbfounded as no one of this group raised their hands. The co-pilot then asked, “Are there any Colored people on the plane?” No response. A little Black girl tugged on her mother’s arm and asked, “Mommy, aren’t we Black?” The mother hastily replied, “Shhh, child. We are waiting on the N-word.”
I fell off my chair in laughter, as did several other Black banquet attendees. The White administrators, however, remained frozen in their seats, not sure what to do. “We” readily understood the moral of the story, which is that we don’t like being called “n****s,” but in this dire situation, with the letter N coming at the end of the alphabet, we will endure being called this derogatory and insulting name.
But folks, we have to stop using this name. Some Black males use this term when greeting one another. The problem, though, is that members of other races and ethnicities hear this term and conclude that it is appropriate for them to do so also. In the movie, Rush Hour, Chris Tucker’s character greets a bartender with, “Whassup, my n***a?” The bartender nods and smiles. Minutes later, Jackie Chan’s character says the same thing to the bartender. The bartender’s response is noticeably different. A brawl occurs.
Maybe, just maybe, if others see that Blacks abhor the use of that word, then others will learn that it is never appropriate to use it.
Dr. Tommy E. Whittler is a professor of marketing, a nationally recognized scholar, and a champion of equity in sports and life. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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