Will Drama Over the N-Word Ever Go Away?


(The Root) — The n-word is in the news again. Yes, another celebrity got caught using the slur during a rant — this time Chevy Chase uttered it when he complained about the direction of his character on the NBC sitcom Community. The context, however, is a bit different from when former Seinfeld star Michael Richards spewed his venom at comedy-show attendees a few years ago.

Chase, who has been admittedly disgruntled with his role on the show as Pierce Hawthorne, an arrogant bigot, made no qualms about expressing his disdain for the character and his disappointment in taking the role, which he says is not funny enough. He had a meltdown on-set because writers have his character becoming more and more bigoted and racist, much to his chagrin. In anger, Chase lashed out, pondering if the writers were eventually going to have him calling the black characters on the show (Yvette Nicole Brown and Donald Glover) the n-word.

After Chase's meltdown, the producers of the hit series put the brakes on production. The rant was leaked to the press. Chase has apologized for his use of the infamous word that just won't seem to go away in popular culture.

Interestingly enough, another recent example of the use of the n-word is the story of Sharmeka Moffitt, a Louisiana woman who police say set herself on fire, refuting her earlier claims that three men wearing white T-shirt hoodies did the deed. Moffitt also alleged that the men who victimized her wrote "KKK" and the n-word on her vehicle in toothpaste.


The motivation for Moffitt's act has yet to be determined, but the reality is that this woman knew what it would take to get this racial party started. Her alleged formula — lighter fluid plus a lighter, multiplied by the n-word — equals national attention.

Here you have two situations in which the slur sits squarely in the middle, demonstrating its continual jarring effect. The n-word is sometimes tossed about callously in everyday life, popular culture and music. Some people argue that it has alternate meanings (and spellings), but can we really argue with the real-world, hurtful consequences of using the word?

Chase appears to be hyperaware of what can happen when portraying a character whose dialogue and behaviors could easily incorporate using the n-word, even though the script has not required him to say it. That's what drove him into a rage, because he seemingly doesn't want to be associated with the word. He used the n-word ironically, in an attempt to make his point.

But I have to wonder if the writers would have heard him otherwise. I get it — Community is about highlighting the mundane nature of life with characters who aren't even aware of their neuroses, awkwardness or incompetence when it comes to their professions. Even if that is the premise of the show, where do we draw the line between humor and bad taste?


That is the challenge. Too many people use the n-word exactly as it was intended — as hate speech. In Moffitt's constructed reality, we witnessed the impact of the n-word, especially when invoking it to allegedly falsify a hate crime.

At the very least, society has to weigh whether it is worth pretending that the n-word has less weight than it does or to deal with the consequences of what happens when the word is used with the power with which it is imbued. Do we want to continue to help fuel a culture of hate?


If words actually hurt and language is powerful, then why do we continue to take chances with the n-word, whether it's Chase using it to prove a point or Moffitt allegedly using it as part of some sort of elaborate hoax? When will people stop inflicting the injurious nature of the n-word on themselves and others?

The answer is that no one wants to take responsibility for the real-world consequences of the use of the n-word, which is why folks continue using it, even when trying to make a point against the use of it. These recent acts speak volumes about how problematic the term remains, whatever the circumstance.


Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is editor-at-large for The Root. She is also editor-in-chief of the Burton Wire, a blog dedicated to world news related to the African Diaspora and global culture. Follow her on Twitter.

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., a media scholar, is digital editor in chief at Grady Newsource and a faculty member of the Cox Institute of Journalism, Innovation, Management & Leadership at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. She is founder and editor in chief of the award-winning news blog the Burton Wire. Follow her on Twitter here or here.

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