The Nuanced History Of The N-Word: Why Paula Deen's Transfer of Blame Is Wrong

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Paula Deen's recent disclosure to using racial epithets incited a hailstorm of media criticism and indelibly blemished her public image. In the midst of the PR fiasco, Deen finally opened up to Matt Lauer on Today . She denied that she was a racist, contested Food Network's decision to terminate her contract, and maintained that she was unsure as to whether the n-word was offensive to black people.

I was probably one of the few not up in arms about Paula Deen's ignorant admission. Given her childhood memories and waxing nostalgia of the Jim Crow era, I'm sure that the notion of a post-racial society is, subconsciously, as confusing to her as it is laughable to me. I am not arguing that her use of racial slurs is excusable. I'm just saying that I am hardly surprised.

Her crocodile tears during the interview did not move me so much as her shifty transference of blame. When Lauer asked, "Do you have any doubt in your mind that African-Americans are offended by the n-word?" Deen said, "I don’t know, Matt. I have asked myself that so many times, because it’s very distressing for me to go into my kitchens and I hear what these young people are calling each other. It’s very very distressing."

Paula Deen's gaffe not only errs on the side of scapegoating her remarks, but it also implicitly begs the question: Why is it that only black people can say the n-word?

I wish to clarify Deen's and other non-minorities' confusion regarding the issue of African-American usage of the word. Historically, the n-word was a pejorative term, used to denote and reinforce the racial hierarchy between white masters and black slaves. To this day, many elder African-Americans subscribe to this construction of the word and argue that its usage by young people reflects a kind of self-degradation.

I concede that some young African-Americans do refer to ignorant or unsavory individuals as n-words, a move that may invoke memory of subjugation and segregation. (Hence, the controversy between the generations.) Yet, largely, the word now assumes a more positive connotation as black youth have re-appropriated it as a term of endearment. This action of reclaiming an offensive word seeks to deconstruct the power behind it. It's the same principle as lesbians reclaiming the word "dyke."

Still, this reclamation does not allow for non-minorities to spew the word freely (coughPaulacough). Although this prohibition seems unfair to some, consider that the usage of the term by non-minorities would only re-invert the power structure that young African-Americans are trying to destabilize. If you understand that, I ask, why are you so pressed to use the word at all?

Image: TODAY