Last night I attended an annual sports journalism symposium at University of Maryland that featured a panel discussion on racism in sports. As part of the discussion, the question was posed on the acceptability of the "N" word in sports or in general society. The Washington Post also recently printed a long article about the history and present usage of this loaded racial epithet. Some of the panel participants felt that the word is acceptable for African-Americans to use among themselves but not generally acceptable coming from someone outside that group except, perhaps, among close friends.
The last point made me think of the three different occasions while working that I dealt with situations that a white employee aimed the word at a black co-worker. The black workers in at least two of the instances didn't want the white employee fired or severely disciplined; they just wanted me to make them stop. Both times when I confronted the employee who had said the "N" word their defense was that the blacks use the word with each other. I remember once responding that I knew they did, but he still couldn't call them that, and the other time I believe I yelled out angrily that I didn't want the word said by anyone.
The subject makes me feel old. Growing up in Maryland in the 1950's, I commonly heard the "N" word used. I'm not proud to admit that I sometimes said it myself but not within earshot of my mother who forbade its use. I'd also admit it having used it a few times in the late 60's when it was commonly thought among college students who viewed themselves as hip and above prejudice which somehow made it cool to say the word. My decision to stop was vindicated when I heard the comedian Richard Pryor say that he was getting sick of hip white people using the word. I also noted the reactions of close African-American friends to those situations. They may have chosen not to make an issue of a white using the word around them, but I knew them well enough to determine that they didn't like it.
Yeah, I'm old and I guess I'm set in my ways, but I'm not going to ever resume using that word no matter how society may change in attitudes about it. I'm comfortable with my choices.