June 22, 2015
This is a file photo of Barack Obama from 2006. (AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson)

This is a file photo of Barack Obama from 2006. (AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson)

When judging whether or not to use taboo language, editors wisely consider the identity of the speaker and the context of the speech. So I hope that the use of the n-word by the President of the United States in a podcast interview about racism will allow editors to quote him fully by spelling the word out.

The BBC got it just right, I think, in this report:

US President Barack Obama has used the “n-word” during an interview to argue that the United States has yet to overcome its issues with racism.

“Racism, we are not cured of it,” the president said. “And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say nigger in public.”

Here is the rest of that paragraph, as told to WTF podcast host Marc Maron: “That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior.”

In a report on CNN, they played a clip of the president actually reciting the word, while the text appeared on the screen with the n-word dashed out: n—–.”  That doesn’t feel like an Aristotelian “middle way.”  It feels more like editors who are hedging their bets.

I remember, with some amusement now, when President Jimmy Carter declared that if Ted Kennedy ran against him, “I’ll whip his ass.”  How squeamish it now seems that newspapers across the land blotted out that mild obscenity.  “I’ll whip his a–?”  What did he say, we joked in the newsroom:  “I’ll whip his arm?”

There’s more at stake with the n-word.  Its complicated history of usage requires care but not paralyzing inhibition. These seem like some common-sense guidelines:

  1.   Who said it?  The president?  A rapper? A protestor?  A cop?  — The status and role of the speaker will help you decide whether to spell out the word.
  2.   What is the news context?  The more serious the context, the more inclined I am to spell out the word.  When the prez says it about race in the immediate aftermath of the church killings in South Carolina, the news justifies the use.
  3. There is a difference between a reporter or columnist using the word and that person quoting someone else.  That quote can come from a speaker, such as the president, but it can also come from a document, such as a book like “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
  4.   Yes, it’s true, some people get to use a taboo word more than others.  The rule is this:  the aggrieved group gets to use a word that is used against them.  White people can and should use the n-word in appropriate contexts, but our usage is more problematic.  When I taught a class of African-American students a lesson on taboo words, I asked for their permission to use the word in the appropriate context, and it was granted.
  5. When it comes to language use, there is not just cultural diversity, there is sub-cultural diversity.  Depending on such things as gender and generation, some African-Americans will applaud the appropriation of the n-word as friendly and part of hip-hop culture, while others condemn and abhor it.
  6.   Talk it over in your newsroom or professional group.  If you are lucky enough to work in a diverse place, consult all the appropriate stakeholders.

In the meantime, please let the President say what he wants to say – and spell it out.

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
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