The President and the “N-Word”

Put a black body where it’s not “supposed” to be, and watch people lose their minds.

The headline, as it appeared on the newspaper's website.

The headline, as it appeared on the newspaper’s website.

Last week, The West View News, a small monthly paper with circulation in the West Village neighborhood of New York City, ran a story about President Obama with a headline that read “The Nigger in the White House.” The article, written by James Lincoln Collier, a white man, defended the president and accused the far-right of racism.

“Nigger” is a piece of language so loaded, it’s not one that anyone stumbles upon lightly, or happens to use in place of something else. It’s not synonymous with anything; it’s a word of intention. A word of consequence. A word with a lot of history attached to it.

Of course, the newspaper headline sparked debate about the use of the word, and whether its use (however ironically) has a place in journalism—or any other decent public space, for that matter. It’s an editorial decision, for sure, a move that’s the print equivalent of click-bait, which has spawned coverage and think pieces about what the word means.

There were respectability politic arguments that suggested that somehow it’s even more egregious to use the word in discussion of the president (as if his position should supplant his racial or cultural identity), then there were other arguments that suggested the word’s inconvenience:

“So why was the n-word absolutely necessary?” writes Isha Aran from Jezebel. “There is absolutely nothing shocking about the racism the n-word refers to. It’s awful, harmful, and unacceptable, but it is by no means shocking in the sense that it’s a new problem.”

There were mentions of how The New York Times “avoids” using the word, and first-person anecdotes about personal struggles with the word and racism.

With all of the swirling discussions over the headline, the prevailing attitude seems to be that the word “nigger,” a heavy word, loaded with history, is just too complicated for anyone to want to deal with. We debate the word’s necessity because its legacy makes us uncomfortable; with enough Civil Rights legislation on the books, we’ve come to accept the insidious and corrosive mindset that comes along with the word with a simple “haters gon’ hate,” because it’s apparently lost shock value.

Racism isn’t a new problem, but I’m never not in awe of it, especially in a modern context. Consider the early 20th century poem “Niggers in The White House” (or even 2011’s “Niggas In Paris”). You put a black body where it’s not “supposed” to be, and watch people lose their minds. The implications there, of course, is that blackness is under constant restriction in its range of movement, in its ascension. That it has its place, and it’s best to stay in it.

Once we start unpacking that — what that means for the quality of black life, what that means for the ways black children are socialized, what that means for a president and administration who want to make healthcare a universal option and assure women receive equal work for equal pay — there are problems that are so much bigger than the word “nigger” (or any of the more subtle and beloved codewords of racism). For as long as racism remains a malignant cancer that goes untreated, consider the word “nigger” a recurring side-effect of the disease.

Follow Maya Francis on Twitter. 

Around The Web

Be respectful of our online community and contribute to an engaging conversation. We reserve the right to ban impersonators and remove comments that contain personal attacks, threats, or profanity, or are flat-out offensive. By posting here, you are permitting Philadelphia magazine and Metro Corp. to edit and republish your comment in all media.

  • Enuf already

    People commenting on the president have nothing to do with race, gender, religion or the deodorant he uses. It has to do with the simple FACT that he’s inept, a liar and out to destroy the country and with it the people. This is proven by HIS words and actions. If we’re wrong than do what’s needed to fix America and its problems. Shut the gates to all (NO other country allows what we do) and when every American has a home, food on the table put there by a job they have; when our senior citizens aren’t being abused in nursing homes or choosing between medicine/food/home; when every wounded vet receives the care and job they need AND THE LIST GOES ON, we can than revisit opening the doors once again. Opened not to any monies given, no assistance, welfare, entitlements, special rights but you can come if you can support yourself or for the opportunity to work and pay taxes.

    • Rumplestilskin

      On most of the issues you complain about, while blaming the President, the GOP dominated house has refused to act in any way, let alone constructively. THEY are the ones cutting Medicare, and budgets for everything that might help the middle and working classes. THEY are the ones that have refused to even discuss the Immigration Bill passed by the Senate. They are the ones that have focused on undermining a President who was elected by an OVERWHELMING MAJORITY OF AMERICANS, TWICE. Instead of focusing on hating the President and blocking any initiatives he might propose they need to remember that they are supposed to “do the People’s business” WHICH THEY HAVE NOT DONE.

      • Kevin Bt

        maybe what they hate is to do people ‘s business, though one man called Obama, a president but not a king, and intelligent man but not messiah, they is no way republicans benefit by standing in the way of a president, they only benefit when the national debt gets slashed, when people don’t pay for things they never dreamed of, when border is under control, when economy performs better echoed by real job creation, when welfare programs don’t stimulate the economy, when a threat of an Islamic state doesn’t exist, and etc, that is how they benefit, that is just what i think my friend

        • Rumplestilskin

          You make no sense whatsoever. All the GOP has done for 6 years is F things up…that’s it. Government shutdown, 40 plus useless attempts to repeal the ACA, debt ceiling crisis, blocked a raise in the minimum wage, attempted to block voters access to the ballot, generally acted against the interests of the PEOPLE and for the corporations and special interests.

          • Charliefoxtrot

            Its almost as if you willingly have forgotten the Bush years, and just how absolutely delightful Dems were to him. Thanks for the belly laugh.
            Skilled politicians bearing the right message overcome opposition. Obama is…..not skilled. Wait. He’s extremely skilled at burning down straw men. So there’s that.

    • Dan

      Haha, basically your entire list (minus the anti-immigration bit) is the Democratic platform. Me thinks you’re confused. Republican ideology is survival of the fittest with the least government intervention possible. The Republican party is against all of the welfare and regulatory programs you advocate.

      Also, if you recall George Bush and John McCain advocated legalization. Bush was just as pro-immigration than Obama (or at least comparable). Bush deported fewer illegals than Obama as well.

    • WilltheFree

      You are incredibly naive – or in denial – if you think that there are not racists in the United States. I have run into them first hand, up here in the great North East where we are supposedly in a post-racial society.

      Some people are still racist. That was the point of the article. Deal with it.

    • Kevin Bt

      he is a great man, reasonable, sensible, sounding as if he is makes a lot of sense 8/9 of the time, but practical application of his policies and deception ruins a great country called USA, Americans consume time and energy not in books and excellence, but religious, political, social, racial, gender divides,[the same way kids deal with addiction from PSPs and Nintendo consoles] Americans are not a machine that need oil for sustaining, they have to rise and conquer, they must set goals and achieve, they must rid themselves slogans, recitations, agenda and bitterness, start to focus on what works, on things that have been tested and proven to work,

  • thescoop1

    Released February 10, 2014 “Undressing the N-word: Revealing the Naked Truth About Lies, Deceit and Mind Games”

  • Charliefoxtrot

    Perhaps Team Blue should have gone and grabbed a competent black guy or gal instead of resurrecting Soviet style iconography and wishcasting that Hope and Change would transcend all?