It's a delicate business to declare a racial slur taboo. Today a non-black person calling a black one the n-word is treated as morally equivalent to photos of naked children being discovered in one's desk drawer.
Yet all societies have taboos, and the way we now treat the n-word is, in broad view, merely a sign that American taboos have shifted from the sexual to the racial. Matt Stone and Trey Parker have their cardboard cut-out scamps in South Park dwell on every imaginable form of scatology. But even they would never dream of having a character actually utter the n-word; the closest they have come is coyly ending an episode cold just as a character was about to do so.
It is a more delicate business, however, to decree that black people can sling the n-word all over the place while white people are burned in effigy for saying it. That's the ritual that Dr. Laura Schlessinger was complaining about in her "eruption" on her radio show. She, like most Americans, doesn't get why black people can but white people can't.
The reason is weird but coherent. Blacks recruited the word partly as a reclamation and partly out of an inferiority complex born of oppression. From both of these impulses, it evolved into a term of joshingly teasing affection. That's an old story among human beings: A Russian word for "guy" is muzhik, which started as meaning "peasant." Italians back in the day could use wop in the same self-referentially affectionate way. It's an even older story among blacks than is often known: The affectionate use of the n-word was well established a century ago and before, and coon was used then in the exact same way (ace boon coon meant "good friend").
All fine, but the idea that Americans will ever understand this nationwide is fantasy. No nation is a population of anthropologists, linguists and historians. The earnest books written in hopes of making it otherwise regarding the n-word have had, we can now admit after a decade, no real effect. Randall Kennedy's Nigger of 2003 is the best remembered because of its major publicity and the memorability of its title. But among the others, Jabari Asim's The N-Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn't, and Why actually embodies the black cultural sentiment on the word most vividly. Yet we're always back to people like Dr. Laura whose take on it all is "What's that all about?" And no number of books will make it otherwise.
All books like this do is stimulate "forums," the highlight of which is usually a sly black man between about age 17 and 30 getting warm props from the audience for suggesting that there is a difference between nigga (affectionate) and nigger (mean). Cute as this is, it isn't useful. It's just code for repeating that only black people can mean it the good way. We know this because a white person isn't allowed to say nigga any more than nigger — upon which we are right where we started.
Yet all will agree that nevertheless, whites should not be able to hurl the word around with impunity. The resulting "We can but you can't" situation is peculiar and fragile, but then, so is much of how human societies handle the ticklish synergy between past and present. As Jews may observe kosher laws, so too, America can observe a historically minded brand of politesse under which whites step away from a term that blacks use in a different meaning.
However, it is too delicate a business to decree that whites cannot even use the n-word when referring to it. Here, expectations of politesse drift into melodramatic persecution disguised as civic concern. It means things like a white supervisor at the University of Virginia medical school in 2003 being picketed and asked to resign for saying that having a football team called the Redskins was "as derogatory to Indians as having a team called Niggers would be to blacks." Or the National Urban League calling for Dr. Laura to resign last week.
We need to strike a deal. If blacks are going to go about slinging the n-word around at one another — and they are — then we will also stop pretending that there is no difference between quoting the word and saying it. That is not only fair but also a matter of exhibiting basic intelligence.
As always, there's a fine line. To quote the word over and over is cocky, rude. But we always knew that Laura Schlessinger was rude. She's paid to be rude, and if anyone is waiting for professionally rude people to always make a special exception for racial matters, then a certain Godot comes to mind.
In any case, for a white person to be raked over the coals for single quotations of the word is absurd, and even multiple quotations of it should be classified as tacky but not as "eruptions" or "threatening the return of" anything. I wish Dr. Laura had not apologized; I doubt the sincerity of the apology — as well as its necessity.
Surely the conversation on race, such as it is, will be one in which black people will base their statements and actions on logic. Distinguishing assertion from quotation is a fundamental facet of the human use of language. (Offended at psychological tests showing whites disinclined to associate blacks with intelligence? Well, this studious recoil from the basic human comprehension of context when "the n-word" comes up is a great way to help keep black people looking dim.)
Let's let it go and leave Dr. Laura — as well as the next radio host who "erupts" in a similar vein — alone. After all, don't we have more important things to do?
John McWhorter is a lecturer at Columbia University and a contributing editor to The New Republic.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.