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Is It Ever Appropriate To Use The N-Word?


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop, where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds.

Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week are freelance journalist Jimi Izrael; civil rights attorney and author Arsalan Iftikhar; Kevin Blackistone is a sportswriter and professor of journalism; and new to the shop today, Justin Vaughn, he is an assistant professor of political science at Cleveland State University.

But everybody happens to be in Washington, D.C. So how awesome is that, Jimi?

JIMI IZRAEL: How awesome is that? Thank you, Michel. Thank you for that, Michel. J.V.


IZRAEL: Hometown, what's up? Good to have you. And from my college.

VAUGHN: That's right.

IZRAEL: That's a two-for. You the man. You the man. All right. You know what? Let's get things started. The latest dust-up in the social media world is actress Gwyneth Paltrow tweeting the N-word. Well, kind of - let me explain this one. See, Gwyneth apparently tweeted a photo from a Jay-Z and Kanye West concert in Paris last week. She tweeted, N-words in Paris, for real. Hmm.

Well, you know, the N-word was written with letters and characters, so she didn't actually write it out. But some people - some people are having a hard time with this. It reignited the debate about whether it's ever appropriate for white people to use the term. I'm sure my grandfather would have had something to say about this.

But you know, comedian Chris Rock has some advice for us about this - a while back. Michel, we got some - we got a clip. Yeah?

MARTIN: We do. And, also, you know, "N-words in Paris" is actually the name of Kanye's and Jay-Z's song...

IZRAEL: Right, Not for nothing. Right.

MARTIN: ...so there is that. Not for nothing. But to your point, this is from a comedy skit. Chris Rock says you must check the Dr. Dre rules with your black friends. Here's a clip.


CHRIS ROCK: One of the rules, when a Dr. Dre song comes on the radio or plays at a club, what is the procedure that goes into effect? 'Cause sometimes, I'm with my white friends and a Dr. Dre song will come on. And there's a lot of (beep) in a Dr. Dre song ...


ROCK: ROCK: ...and they want to enjoy it. But they can't really enjoy it around me.


MARTIN: Protocol. What's the protocol? What's the protocol, Jimi?

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: It's got to be in the song.

IZRAEL: Well...

IFTIKHAR: It's got to be in the song.

IZRAEL: Right. Well, thanks for that, Michel. Chris Rock says it's sometimes OK for white people to say it in the lyrics of the song - which is kind of what Gwyneth Paltrow was doing. But let me just tell you something, you know, because I guess there are black people running around, giving white people permission to use the word.

And let me just say this, white people, because I love you - but more than they do, apparently. If you're running - if somebody gives you permission to use that word, they do not like you very much. They are setting you up to be a YouTube video. They are running behind you with a flip-cam...


IZRAEL: ...at the ready because you are going to make history, my friend. You are about to go viral. You're about to get Internet wasted real quick. You're about to be the next big meme. You know, that's real talk. J.V. - Justin Vaughn - you want to chime in here?

VAUGHN: I read today - today is Kanye's birthday, so I feel like this is a particularly important topic for this afternoon.


VAUGHN: I would like to say, just don't say it. Right? Don't say the word. Don't quote it. Don't lip sync it. Don't tweet it with asterisks. Just don't use it.

IZRAEL: But why not? It's English.

VAUGHN: It is English, but there's a lot of things that are English and, you know, it doesn't matter what your intent is - and I'm sure there was no ill intent in this. In fact, probably the opposite. But once it comes out of your mouth, the intent's gone. Right? And you lose control about how people are going to feel about it. And not just a few people are going to be offended but, you know, huge numbers of people are going to be seriously upset and hurt by what you may be saying. And you've got to know, at this point in American history, that that's a likely result.

IZRAEL: I agree with that. Thank you. As our resident white guy in the Shop, thank you for putting it down like that. K.B. - Kevin Blackistone, I...

MARTIN: You didn't know you had a nametag that said resident white guy in the Shop, Justin.

IZRAEL: I look at it like having a gun. It's like, you know, you can use a gun, but it's dangerous depending on how you use it. If you don't know how to use it, you're going to hurt somebody - and it might be yourself.

BLACKISTONE: Well, you know, maybe use it in an academic setting.

IZRAEL: Really?

BLACKISTONE: Maybe use it as Randall Kennedy did when he wrote his book (BLEEP), which is an entomology of the word.

IZRAEL: Right.

BLACKISTONE: But you know what? You want to talk about etiquette? Gwyneth Paltrow would learn the etiquette, as you suggested - you know, it's one thing to tweet it out with your friends. It's another thing if she was riding the Green Line here in D.C., and got off at the MLK station down at Southeast, and called some sister who was sitting in front of her...

IZRAEL: Oooh-wee! Then ...

BLACKISTONE: ...that same word. Then...

IZRAEL: ...famous, real quick.

BLACKISTONE: Exactly. Then, she would learn the etiquette of the use of the word.

MARTIN: Well, I don't think she would do that, though.

IZRAEL: You never know.

MARTIN: But in fact, it has been - but, you know - Arsalan, I don't know what you think. We're always interested in your take on this because, you know, speaking of Randy Kennedy's book about the N-word - and maybe we could suspend any further use of it here today. We'll just use the euphemism; I think that would be good to do. It was actually used as a defense in a case where a person was being prosecuted for a hate crime, used the word. Right?


MARTIN: And then used that as the defense - saying, we hear it on the radio all the time; what's the issue?

IFTIKHAR: Well, and actually, I think that, probably, from a legal vantage point, did more to undermine a defense because when it comes to bias-motivated crimes, you have to show - in addition to a physical assault or whatever other criminal act - that there was some sort of bias motivation. So whether it's, you know, a homophobic slur before beating up somebody who they perceived to be of the LGBT community, similarly I think that would undermine his or her defense.

I think here, for me, when I first heard the story, the first thing that came to mind, to me, was Gwyneth Paltrow was trying so hard to be a baller here.


IFTIKHAR: And it just landed completely flat.


IZRAEL: Right. She's trying to get some street cred.

IFTIKHAR: Yeah. I mean...

IZRAEL: What street is that?


IFTIKHAR: The only baller in her family is her husband, Chris Martin, of Coldplay.

IZRAEL: Right.

IFTIKHAR: Again, I think it is a little disingenuous when people say that she used the N-word. She didn't use it. She was, whether tone deaf or not, she was quoting the title of a song...

IZRAEL: Right.

IFTIKHAR: ...to try to be a baller, and it completely fell flat. And I think that's important to keep in mind.

BLACKISTONE: But why is it when you use asterisk, or when we all use the word "N-word," why is that not saying it? Everybody knows what you're saying.

IZRAEL: Right, right. Yeah, right.

BLACKISTONE: I mean, the euphemism has become just as bad.

IZRAEL: You know what it is?


IZRAEL: I think - and this is something, you know - although, I know Bakari Kitwana, he talked about it in his book; how, you know, white kids have taken on hip-hop, and it's been great. But see, I think one of the byproducts is that white kids really believe that they can use this word, you know. But you haven't earned the right to use this word. Proximity does not give you permission. It doesn't give you membership.

But like, for instance, I've worked in the gay community for four years. I was a DJ. But if I ever formed my mouth to drop the D-word or the F-word, I got...


IZRAEL: ...snapped up really quickly. Like look, like...

MARTIN: Why would you? Why would you want to? You thought you were in.

IZRAEL: I thought it was among family. I thought I was among friends. They were like uh-uh. They were like, no; you don't have any right to use that. That's not your word.

MARTIN: Interesting.

BLACKISTONE: But the problem is, is she has been given license by people like Russell Simmons - who then goes out and writes a defense of her for using the word. That's the problem.

IZRAEL: Who is Russell Simmons?


BLACKISTONE: I'm more concerned about him, and less concerned about Gwyneth Paltrow, because he really doesn't understand. He doesn't really understand the situation.

IZRAEL: He doesn't understand much. Let's just put that out there.

MARTIN: Do you think that there's kind of a - what's the word I'm looking for? Kind of an elite kind of group-think here - which is well, we're all famous, elite friends and so therefore, we can use this word because if - the word is never going to be directed against me in a context in which I'm actually going to be harmed or hurt, right?

IZRAEL: Mm-hmm.

BLACKISTONE: Exactly. I think you're exactly correct.

MARTIN: Because, you know what, so they don't let me in the Louis Vuitton store at closing time.


MARTIN: It's all good. My personal assistant will go the next day and hook me up - you know, that kind of thing.


MARTIN: You think that that's part of it?

BLACKISTONE: I think that is part of it. And I also think the other part of it is, is that you've got people like Jay-Z and Russell Simmons, who have commercialized and monetized the word.

IZRAEL: Well, I don't think that's...

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting because, you know, women - can I just throw this a little - women, I find, sometimes use this word with each other, in a certain context. And, you know, I've - on occasion - had to check someone for saying - maybe you call your friends that, but you don't call me that. But I've never had a real friend ever use that word with me - right, someone who was really a friend - because if somebody was really my friend, then they would know that I don't think that's - you're not going to call - you see what I'm saying?

BLACKISTONE: But - yeah.

MARTIN: So I wonder if this - also kind of a part of the fact that these really aren't real friends.

BLACKISTONE: Well, but I...

MARTIN: Because real friends really know how they really feel.

BLACKISTONE: But I also think it's interesting that black people over time - particularly the generation we're living in now - have appropriated a very ugly slur, and turned it into this kind of debate where you can use it sometimes as a weapon and other times, you can use it in friendship - maybe not in our generation, but in their generation.

IZRAEL: Well, I...

MARTIN: But doesn't every group do that?

IZRAEL: Yeah. And...

MARTIN: I mean, don't - doesn't every group have words that they use with each other, like...


IZRAEL: Right. Right.

IFTIKHAR: Well, I think appropriate...

MARTIN: ...knucklehead or whatever - same...


IFTIKHAR: And, you know, for me - you know, for example, you know, my parents are originally from Pakistan, right?


IFTIKHAR: And so a lot of my friends will throw around the term "Paki." But the term Paki, in the United Kingdom, is essentially the moral equivalent of the N-word.

IZRAEL: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Right.

IFTIKHAR: And so when my friends, you know, throw that around, I - you know, I tell them to slow their roll. So I mean, this is not just exclusive to the African-American community.

IZRAEL: You know what it is? It's kind of a false sense of intimacy.


IZRAEL: Like, I thought I was in. I thought these were people - I mean, because I'd known them for years, and I loved them. I thought I had a right to use this F- and this D-word. They were like, uh-uh. We love you, too, but you haven't earned the right to use that word. You are not of this community. That word does not belong to you - you know. And if you really loved us, you would respect that, and not use it.


MARTIN: That's interesting.

IZRAEL: So, like that.

MARTIN: That's interesting. All right. Well, if you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our weekly visit to the Barbershop with freelance journalist Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, sportswriter and journalism professor Kevin Blackistone, and political science professor Justin Vaughn.

And it's too bad you're all so shy today. Nobody wants to say how they really feel.


MARTIN: It's so sad. I mean, maybe we can bring you out - more Red Bull. Jimi, what else?

IZRAEL: All right. Thanks, Michel. Well, we're going to drop the L-Word, LeBron.


IZRAEL: LeBron James - look, he was on the ropes the other night but his team is heating up - no puns intended. Arsalan?


IZRAEL: I'm surprised you made it in today after your beloved Celtics got blown out by the Miami Heat. Aw, man, my condolences. But that's...

MARTIN: No, you don't. You don't care.

IFTIKHAR: Don't condole anything, man.


IFTIKHAR: It's still, you know, we've got a game seven on Saturday night. And yes, you know, LeBron James and the Miami "Cavaliers" took game six against the Boston Celtics.


IFTIKHAR: But you know what? Nobody gave my Celtics a chance, Michel Martin. You know, first it was...


IFTIKHAR: ...it was going to be Miami in a sweep, then five games, then six games. Anything can happen in a game seven. And when you have people like, you know, K.J. and Hondo - I'm sorry, K.G. and Rondo, anything can happen on Saturday night. It should be a great game seven and - although I think the ballers of Oklahoma City are probably going to run over anyone from the East. You know, the ability...

MARTIN: Oh, notice how he's shaping the narrative, right?

IFTIKHAR: ...the potential...

MARTIN: Notice how he's like, walking it back. Walking it back.

IFTIKHAR: The prospect, the mere prospect of being...

MARTIN: Tape is a beautiful thing, my brother. Tape is a beautiful thing.

IFTIKHAR: The prospect of taking out Miami in Miami, would be merely priceless.


MARTIN: And will not occur.


IZRAEL: Kevin Blackistone...

MARTIN: Kevin, this is your thing.

BLACKISTONE: Well, I mean, you know, LeBron just affirmed for anyone who knows how great of a player he is, that he's a great player. I mean, it's just - that was a miraculous performance by him last night. I mean, think about what he did, right? He scored 30 points in the first half, on the road, in a closeout playoff game against A, the best defense in the league. They could not stop him. I mean, that's amazing. Unfortunately, you know, LeBron James is a classic case of the villainized black athlete. And, you know, unless and until he can win a championship, there will always be people who will be throwing stones at him simply because of the way that he left your beloved town, Cleveland.

IZRAEL: This, and he's a chokester.

MARTIN: Oh, stop.

IZRAEL: J., Justin, go ahead.

VAUGHN: Yeah. I was thinking about this earlier today - about when I was a kid, my little brother used to like dinosaurs. And I never really understood it, right? But LeBron James has finally made me like some dinosaurs up in Boston.


VAUGHN: Those dudes are old but, you know, they're getting it done.


VAUGHN: They're getting it done, and I'm cheering for them.

MARTIN: You're still hating on LeBron, though?

VAUGHN: Oh, man, I'm...

MARTIN: This is more anti-LeBron than it is pro-Celtics. Come on.

BLACKISTONE: And that's...

VAUGHN: Well...

MARTIN: Why is that? I'm sorry...

IZRAEL: Wait, I'm pro-LeBron. I'm pro-LeBron. It's just...

MARTIN: Why are you still hating on...

IZRAEL: I don't think he can finish. I just don't think he's a finisher.

VAUGHN: And that's the other thing I was going to say. You know, LeBron played a great game last night. LeBron is one of the best basketball players of all time. However, we know it was game six, and not game seven, because he showed up, right?


VAUGHN: Game seven, when it's clinch time, LeBron is going to ...

MARTIN: If he were still wearing the Cavs, would you be saying that?

VAUGHN: You know...

MARTIN: And this is just rejection speaking. I mean, let's just be real.

VAUGHN: That's - oh, you're probably right.


IZRAEL: Well, I'm going to push back on that, and say no.

BLACKISTONE: I like the truth.

IZRAEL: I mean, because he's - he demonstrated in Cleveland time after time. But at the point, he's indecisive. He chokes under pressure - word to Scott Raab - and that's unfortunate.

IFTIKHAR: And remember, when he was wearing a Cleveland Cavaliers jersey, it was my beloved Boston Celtics that ended his tenure there, when he didn't show up in game five in Boston Garden.

MARTIN: Well, the chemistry is - I think it's a different team. It's a different context. And I think that he - look, I'll be equally excited if the Thunder win. I think that that game six of the Western...

IFTIKHAR: That was good.

MARTIN: ...Conference Finals was one of the best games ever. It was certainly the best game of the series, in my humble opinion. But I think that one of the things that just irritates me is that this is supposed to be a society where people own their own labor. He chose to take his labor under - using his - which he had every right to do.

VAUGHN: Mm-hmm.



MARTIN: ...to a place where he could - and in fact, took less money to play with people that he wanted to play with...

IZRAEL: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...because he thought that that would - he would enjoy it more, for whatever reason. And I just think - I just get irritated with people hating on him because he did what he has a right to do. I mean, you know, if any other corporate entity, you know, moves to a different, you know, state, you know, because for whatever - think the conditions are better - people don't like spending the rest of their lives hating them - unless, of course, it's the Cleveland Browns. I'm sorry, but...


IFTIKHAR: Michel? Michel?

MARTIN: Go ahead, Arsalan.

IFTIKHAR: There's nobody here that would deny the fact that he had every right to go to Miami. But, you know, with the debacle of the decision, then the stupid pep rally that they had, where he said not one, not two...


IFTIKHAR: ...not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven - you know, that really left a bad taste in a lot of people's mouths - who loved LeBron when he was in Cleveland. I loved LeBron when he was in Cleveland because he was the proverbial underdog. And now, he basically colluded with two out of the best top 10 players in the league to form, you know, this little...

MARTIN: So what? Colluded? How about agreed? How about, they're his friends, and he wants to play with them?

IZRAEL: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: I mean, are we colluding because this is the group that we like - we like talking to each other, and we invite you all in? Is that collusion?

IZRAEL: Aw, snap.

MARTIN: And you just open the door and - walk in whoever.

IFTIKHAR: Perception is reality.

MARTIN: Well, also - and the other thing is - and I guess - I know - for some reason, I'm the only person who ever brings up this - these are still very young people, you know. They are very young people. In any other field, they would be at the beginning of their career, and they'd be supervised by grown-ups. It is only in athletics that these young, very young people are multi-national corporations or multimillion dollar corporations in their own right and operate with very little kind of supervision in terms of the other aspects of their lives and he's a very young person. And I mean if you've got a 26-year-old, you know, associate at a law firm who said something lame you would be like, oh, whatever. Sit down, son.

IFTIKHAR: He's been there for nine years though now.

MARTIN: So what? He started when he was like 15. So what?


MARTIN: I'm sorry.

IZRAEL: Well, you can't tell from his hairline. It's definitely...

IFTIKHAR: I know, right?


MARTIN: Hater. Hater. Hater. Hater. Hater. Hater. Hater. Somebody is going to be buying me a Starbucks next week.



MARTIN: Maybe three.

IZRAEL: Hey now.

MARTIN: Love ya'll. Maybe four, I don't know. Hey, before we let you go, what do you want to talk about? Do you want to talk about the, you know, did you know that Justin Combs - Sean Diddy Combs, the mega rich hip-hopper's...


MARTIN: ...son Justin Combs was awarded a merit based scholarship to UCLA. And some people are like, what?

IFTIKHAR: I know. Right?

MARTIN: And, what?

BLACKISTONE: What's wrong with that?

IZRAEL: Yeah. Yeah. Why not? I mean, what? Was he supposed to get a rap career? I mean applaud this kid for...

MARTIN: We have two professors in the house. I'm just wondering, you're...

IZRAEL: Applaud this kid for going to college. You know, and he earned it. You know, all you haters out there, so what if his dad's rich. He earned it.

IFTIKHAR: Absolutely.

IZRAEL: He earned it.

MARTIN: Ain't his mom good-looking? Yes? See her?


IFTIKHAR: A 3.57 GPA, star cornerback, you know, so what that he's driving a $300,000 Maybach. You keep pimping, pimping. And remember that...

MARTIN: I think that's wrong.


MARTIN: I think the Maybach should stay in the garage.

IZRAEL: The Maybach stays at home.

MARTIN: Justin, what do you think? What do you think? You work in a state University. A lot of people are saying state university, what? We could use that money. Come on. Let him write a check, what? What do you say?

VAUGHN: I mean they got a $54,000 scholarship to give to the best athlete that they can recruit for that team and I think Justin Combs qualifies for that.


VAUGHN: And you don't have to recruit the best poor athlete. You don't have to recruit the best middle class athlete. You get the best athlete you can get.

MARTIN: OK. Kevin? Yes? No? It's all good?

BLACKISTONE: Yeah. It's earned. I mean it's awarded based on athletic and academic success and he meets that criteria. And you know what? It's probably a good thing for UCLA in terms of finances because they can get money from the parents.

IFTIKHAR: Free publicity.

MARTIN: Let's hope. Let's hope.

BLACKISTONE: Free publicity.

MARTIN: Or sell the car.


MARTIN: Kevin Blackistone is a professor of journalism at the University of Maryland. Jimi Izrael is a freelance journalist and presidential fellow at Case Western Reserve University. Arsalan Iftikhar is a civil rights attorney and founder of themuslimguy.com. And Justin Vaughn, assistant political science professor at Cleveland State University, all here in Washington, D.C.

Thank you, gentlemen.


VAUGHN: Peace.

IZRAEL: Yup-yup.


MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more on Monday.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.