The great power of the racial epithet

When is a word more than a word? Words have power beyond compare. They make us feel. They bring us smiles but also rip out our hearts. They give comfort but also turmoil. They build us up and tear us down. Words give and take life.

Arguably the most taboo word in American English is the infamous n-word. It’s so wicked it has to be shortened and hyphenated as a word so dastardly it cannot be spoken in its full form. It’s the unspeakable curse of the ultimate racial epithet.

People often say it’s just a word. The reality is it’s not. It’s a word loaded with centuries of disturbing history that recalls the unbearable weight of enslavement, physical and sexual violence and segregationist laws and policies.


Arguments rage on both in the ivory towers of academia and the everyday conversations of entitled college students alike. Who gets to say the n-word, when and how? What happens when you change the –er to an –a or –ah? Does it become benign, friendly, acceptable? What about your race – does it matter? There’s no simple answer. My question is, why does anyone want to say it in the first place?

Whether you want to reclaim the word as a term of endearment for other people of color, namely black or African-American people, or you enjoy yelling out explicit lyrics and reading classic literature, is beside the point. As long as there is debate over it, the word has power. There is no other word that can make me feel like the n-word does. Instantaneously, I feel invisible, worthless, useless, powerless, ugly, invalid and, most of all, inhuman.

I lose my agency to speak, my confidence is drained and all that comes to mind is every single time I have ever felt unlovable, unworthy, unintelligent and unreal because of the color of my skin. The devastating memories of being excluded, examined or asked to explain my existence compound with the emotions of countless bias incidents, blatant moments of prejudice and daily microaggressions.

People say to be strong, hold your head up and not to let it get to you. They apologize for someone else’s bigotry, that it happened to me and that it made me feel valueless. If I had any control over what I could feel in relation to that word I would choose to ignore it. I try and I fail. I can tell myself I’m okay all I want, but all of sudden I’m shaking uncontrollably, sweating profusely and crying hysterically.

The n-word is a powerful agent of destruction because it severs connections. It makes you question all your relationships. Can I ever actually trust a white person? If you are constantly told in major and subtle ways that you do not belong, that you are not enough and that you do not deserve respect, equality/equity, even love – is it irrational to be apprehensive? Yes and no.

That’s what prejudice is – making vast assumptions, stereotyping and stigmatizing identities. It’s unfair and that’s what happens to you as a person of color. You know better, but in the moments after being punctured, pummeled and pounded by a racial slur, thoughts are not rational. These slurs call up feelings of 0f fear – absolute dark, looming terror – horrendously excruciating agony and darkness – pitch black, obscuring gloom.

Being called the n-word shrouds you in a poisonous cloud of despair. No one should be given power to make another feel that way. What stands out most about the n-word and all the devastating slurs where identities become insults is that there are no equivalencies for those with dominant identities. What a privilege it is to never be obliterated by a single world. No one word can ever make you feel the way I do when that word is muttered, thrown and yelled at me.

The word has no use except to separate and alienate. Words are too tricky to have ownership over. Their meanings have been known to fluctuate and evolve – but this is one word forever marred by its deadly past. The n-word is taboo for a reason. Keep it that way.