Racial incidents involving the N-word are still common. But here’s a three-part strategy for preventing them from happening.

At first, I was simply annoyed by the latest dust-up involving Gwyneth Paltrow quoting Kanye West and Jay-Z‘s tune, “Niggas In Paris.”

But after awhile, my heart sank a little. Regardless of the particulars of this story (was she at the concert? Did someone use her phone? Did it matter that she didn’t say the whole word?) stories like this persist because of a confluence of complicated factors and for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that Black people are not monolithic.

But I think I have a way to clear all this up. At the risk of oversimplification, I offer an analogy.



Let’s say there’s a kid walking home from school. And every day he walks past a house with a dog. This dog is loud and boisterous, but not particularly mean or dangerous. Sometimes he’ll come up to the kid on the sidewalk with a rubber ball, and the two play fetch. They both have fun; the kid goes on his way, everyone’s happy.  Let’s say this happens fairly regularly, enough that the kid starts to get a feel for this dog.

What if, one day, instead of a rubber ball, he ambles up to the kid with an old gnarled bone in its mouth? He still looks like he wants to play. The kid has seen other dogs around the neighborhood playing with that bone. It looks like fun. So let’s say this one day, the kid stops, kneels down on the front lawn of the house, and instead of throwing the ball, he tosses the bone.

And let’s say this happens at the exact moment as a bigger, older dog comes around from the back to the front yard. The kid had never seen that dog before. But when that older dog sees the kid with bone in hand, he goes CRAZY. Tries to bite the child’s arm off!

Well, the kid drops that bone like a hot potato, runs away to safety, and vows never to do THAT again. But he keeps passing that house on the way from school, and keeps seeing that fun dog, looking at him with those cute droopy eyes, panting and holding that bone.

One day, he can’t resist. He grabs the bone and tosses it again. Immediately, the bigger dog comes ROARING back around, going for the jugular. The kid freaks out, drops the bone, and not having anywhere to run, he fights off the bigger dog with a stick. And while fighting off the big dog, the kid spies the smaller dog, sitting off to the side, smiling and barking playfully. He thinks this whole thing is hilarious.

Pretty soon an adult comes out of the house to see what all the commotion is about. And instead of scolding his dog, the adult starts scolding the kid! Eventually the adult explains to the kid that the reason why the older dog goes crazy over the bone is that his previous owner used to BEAT him with that bone. So when he sees the kid swinging it, it triggers all these horrible memories, and the older dog just loses it.

So as the adult explains, if the kid wants to keep playing with the dog, three things need to happen. First, the kid needs to learn that the bone is off-limits. Second, the older dog needs to learn that the kid is not going to beat him up just because he’s holding a bone. And third, the younger dog needs to stop using the bone to bait the kid, because it’s not fair to him or the other dog.


*                       *                       *


Now, realizing that this is just an analogy, that all analogies are flawed and imperfect, and dismissing the unfortunately patronizing overtones… still with me? Here goes.

In this analogy, White people are like the kid, younger Blacks are like the little dog, older Blacks are the big dog, and the bone is the N-word.

So it would be a LOT easier to avoid more embarrassing and potentially volatile racial incidents involving that word, IF:

1.)    White people stop trying to use it

2.)    Older Blacks stop being offended by it

3.)    and Younger Blacks stop baiting White people into using it.

And yes, in this analogy, I’m the crotchety old man who reluctantly came outside to fix this mess and wants it dealt with as quickly as possible so that I can go back inside to watch TV.

First, let me talk to the White people for a moment, especially ones that feel like they’re hip, or that, like Donald Trump, they have “a great relationship with the Blacks.” Did you not get the memo? Did you not get to download Negraph, the iPhone app that lets you know whether it’s safe to say the N-word? Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you can’t. I don’t care what your Black roommate told you. I don’t care how many seasons of The Wire you’ve seen, or how many sketches from In Living Color or Chappelle’s Show you can quote.  Not even if you’re Quentin Tarantino.

Yes, it’s a double standard. Yes, it’s unfair. Deal with it. You have plenty of other ways to engage with Black people that aren’t as provocative and incendiary as that one word. Why unnecessarily dredge up all that baggage just to score some irony points? (Yes, Sarah Silverman, I’m talking to you.) With all the things people of color have to carry in our invisible knapsack, it won’t kill you to suck it up and take this one.

Now, to the older, more conservative Blacks who always blanch at the N-word. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, because I understand the legacy of oppression and disenfranchisement that this word carries for you. Unfortunately, it doesn’t carry that same connotation to everyone, particularly the younger Blacks (who I’ll get to in a minute). The fact is, languages are fluid, and English is no exception. The English we speak today bears little resemblance to the English that was spoken two centuries ago. You have to come to terms with the fact that when people use that word now, they don’t mean the same thing, at least not in the same way.  Yes, it might be disrespectful… but only in that context.

I grew up in the ‘80s watching The Dukes of Hazzard and had no idea that the Confederate flag was at all connected to slavery. I just thought it was a cool paint job on the General Lee. The flag didn’t have any negative meaning for me because my elementary school classmates never gave it much symbolic weight. (Fine, I wasn’t much of a history student.) It wasn’t until my mother informed me what the flag meant that I understood. And when she did, she didn’t bite my head off or forbid me from watching the show.  She had enough grace to understand my ignorance and factor it into her response. (Although she drew the line at buying me the lunchbox.)

And now, the younger Blacks. Let me say for the record… you all really oughta know better.

I put myself in this category, because I loved watching The Boondocks along with plenty of other friends of many races, and that show had more N-words-per-capita than an old Richard Pryor routine. In my defense, I will say that The Boondocks was much more of a criticism of contemporary Black culture than it was a celebration of it. But I guess not everyone was able to enjoy it on both levels. Some of our more simple-minded folk just laughed at it for what it was, not realizing they were the targets of the satire. Sometimes, like the infamous Read-A-Book video, it’s hard to know where the line is between mocking something and glamorizing it.

And I guess that’s the point. In our supposed post-racial world, it’s hard for White people to understand what’s acceptable cross-racial behavior when we send so many mixed signals. So it’s reckless  and irresponsible to use the N-word so freely when we know how hard the PC police come down on White people who say it.

The problem with all of this, of course, is that no matter what role you inhabit in this little analogy, it’s always easier to address someone else’s behavior rather than your own. But there’s a reason why Jesus tells us to first remove the plank from our own eye… because if we don’t, that’s all anyone else will see. They won’t be able to receive our correction because our own failing will be so huge in comparison.

So consider this a public service announcement.

White people, don’t use the N-word. Older Blacks, stop being offended by it. And younger Blacks, stop baiting White people into using it.


There, it’s done.  Now onto fixing our political system…




  1. Ariel on July 7, 2012 at 10:11 pm

    I always love to hear what you have to say! And I’m not waiting for you to fix our political system…..SUR-IOUSLY!

  2. Ariel on July 7, 2012 at 10:12 pm

    I always love hearing what you have to say, we are the better from your contritutions! And now I am waiting for you to fix our political system. SER-iously!

  3. Bob Kustusch on April 26, 2013 at 11:12 am

    Hi Jelani,

    Chris just read me this post and I wanted to say I really liked it, even as an old white guy who teaches children of color.

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