Rachel Jeantel is Wrong — The N-Word Can Never Be Reclaimed


Rachel Jeantel, the last person to speak to Trayvon Martin, may want to think twice before granting any more interviews. On CNN’s Piers Morgan Live cable TV interview show, Jeantel went into detail how the word "n*gger" differs based on who, what, when, where, why, and how it is used.

Right there on national TV was another black person endorsing the use of the most hated racial epithet in American history. When will black people learn that it is never OK to use that word?

"N*gger" can never be reclaimed, cleaned, or sanitized. The mere utterance of the word sets off images of slavery, segregation and discrimination. Words have meanings that express values, concepts, and ideas. "N*gger" represents the worst of those.

Neal A. Lester, dean of humanities and former chair of the English department at Arizona State University, explains the challenge. “If you could keep the word within the context of the intimate environment [among friends], then I can see that you could potentially own the word and control it. But you can’t because the word takes on a life of its own if it’s not in that environment.”

The ludicrous assumption that black people are somehow reclaiming the word and making it less offensive is undermined by the reaction that corporate America had to Paula Deen. To utter the word in mixed company is the kiss of death for any celebrity, politician, or businessman. Deen is losing her cooking empire for being unapologetic over using the word. She probably used it less in her lifetime then Jeantel and friends use it in a daily conversation. Somehow some black people seem to be OK with that hypocritical stance.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged. It is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and time in which it is used.”

Maybe that explains why some black people believe that by using the word it somehow miraculously changes its meaning and connotation. It doesn’t. The word is virtually wiped out in every respectable corner of America except in the black community. What is wrong with that picture? Black people are the only people I know that have taken a racial slur fostered on them by an oppressor and tried to make it a term of endearment.

For years black hip-hop artists have been particularly attached to the word and seem insistent on spreading its usage. Legendary hip hop artist KRS-One noted the absurdity of allowing hip-hop to embrace the term. “When I was growing up I was being called 'n*gger' which is offensive, but when some white or Asian kid comes rolling up to me today talking about 'What's up my n*gga'? I should embrace him because this kid is down with hip hop culture?”

Jeantel, who famously testified that “creepy-ass cracker” is not a racist term, said neither is "n*gga." She even said she wished she had used the word on the witness stand. She explained to Morgan, “That mean a male, any kind of male. Any kind. Chinese can say n*gga. That’s my Chino, n*gga. They can say that.”

She should stop talking and use the full scholarship offer she just received from Tom Joyner, Jr. to brush up on some history. Maybe then she’ll realize that the word didn’t change its meaning in the 2000s, as she told Morgan.

As Dave Chappelle demonstrates in the video below, it was a racist derogatory term when it was created and it still is today.