Was it wrong for a pro-Obama article to use the n-word?

A quite pro-Obama article in a small neighborhood newspaper in New York City is facing criticism for using the n-word in its headline.

The piece is about how Eric Cantor’s surprising recent loss in his primary is evidence of a larger racism on the Republican far right; directed primarily, but not exclusively, at President Obama.

According to the writer, James Lincoln Collier, far too many Republicans still see Obama as the “n*gger” in the White House — thus, the title to his story:


(FWIW, I’m using an asterisk in the word because of ad filters.)

Here’s a bit from Collier’s piece:

Presidents have been subjected to stinging attacks before. Franklin Roosevelt was royally hated by conservatives for his advocacy of social programs and support for unions; and Lincoln was shot for his tolerance of the recent enemy. Ironically, Obama has never strongly pushed for the strong social programs liberals expected of him. He has, indeed, been quite passive in his approach to governing. Conservatives ought therefore to have recognized that for a Democrat Obama was about as good as they could get. But, says the Times, “any hint of cooperation with the president” was the kiss of death for candidates in conservative territory.

It is possible to draw only one conclusion: these far right voters hate Obama because he is black. The simple truth is that there is still in America an irreducible measure of racism. A large minority have for some six years have been quietly angry that they must have in the White House a member of an inferior class of people. Until recently. however, they have felt constrained to keep their mouths shut. But America’s increasing tolerance of far right opinion has made racism more acceptable, so long as it can be disguised, however thinly, as politics.

CNN did some pretty good coverage of the controversy, and it’s worth watching before delving into the pros and cons of what Collier did:

Collier’s paper also printed a commentary critical of the headline, right below the article itself.

As for the issue at hand. CNN’s media critic Brian Stelter thinks that if the headline detracts from the main point of the story, then it’s a bad headline. And maybe — in that, regardless of whether the criticism is just, if the main point of what you wrote is lost because of the way people react to your headline (rightly or wrongly), then perhaps the headline wasn’t so great an idea after all. I can accept that logic.

But I do wonder if some of the criticism Collier is facing isn’t a bit of a Suey Park redux. Park was the hacktivist who decided that Stephen Colbert’s show on Comedy Central should be canceled because Colbert did a segment mocking racism, and Park (who has her own racial demons to confront) didn’t quite get the joke.

You find if you write for a living, that a lot of people don’t get the joke.  Nuance is a difficult thing to do well.  Not that any particular writer won’t do it well, but rather, a lot of people won’t get it, regardless of how well you do it.  Sometimes satire doesn’t work because it’s bad satire. But even “good” satire won’t be got by a sizable portion of the reading public, regardless of how brilliant it really is.

I think back to my “infamous” headline about Chris Christie being bi on whether gays can change.  Some bisexual activists decided that my pun was evidence of my “life-long animus” towards bisexuals — when in fact it was simply evidence that I make “gay” puns in headlines all the time, and wasn’t about to spare bisexuals the same joshing I give the rest of our community.

I know it’s not particularly safe to have a contrary view to Outrage, Inc., lest ye too be branded a bigot, a bi-phobe, a cat-hater, an un-American.  But just as with Colbert, I’m somewhat taken aback by the notion that we should beat the cr*p out of people who agree with us, but simply don’t express themselves the way we might like.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t correct an ally if they get it wrong. But does using a slur, however artfully, per se make you a bigot?

This fag isn’t convinced.

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CyberDisobedience on Substack | @aravosis | Facebook | Instagram | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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24 Responses to “Was it wrong for a pro-Obama article to use the n-word?”

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  3. lynchie says:

    Well civil rights are poorly supported and from the way the SC has been ruling they may be willing to roll back those laws.

  4. arcadesproject says:

    The word is just too incendiary, man. There’s no way to mitigate the harm it does; appeals to ‘context’ and such are just lame.

  5. Houndentenor says:

    Remember that there are people old enough to remember people burning crosses in their yards or whose family members were lynched. Not everyone alive grew up in a world where civil rights laws were in place or enforced once they existed. It’s one thing to use this kind of tactic when you know you are speaking or writing to a 20-something audience. It’s another for a general audience.

  6. BeccaM says:

    My problem is the title is used to shock…but then Collier doesn’t do anything to explain in the article why he felt it necessary to use the word.

    The column itself is actually rather pedestrian and, although well-written, is yet another recounting of the basic (and oft repeated) theme: “Lots of Americans hate Obama not because he’s a Democrat but because he’s black. And that’s the only relevant reason.”

    Bill Clinton was ridiculed by the right as an ignorant yokel — but he wasn’t subjected to the level of overt racism directed at Obama on a regular basis. Witch-doctor photos, watermelons & bananas, likening him and the First Lady to apes — these are images DIRECTLY from the vilest of racist memes. Stuff most of us haven’t had to witness in a generation has made a comeback — and has been mainstreamed by right-wing media outlets, commentators, and political arsonists.

    I mean, from my point of view, all it would have taken was a sentence or two in Collier’s column saying something like, “To say there isn’t a racist component involved in the conservative right’s animus towards our current president is to ignore the fact there are significant numbers of Americans who unashamedly refer to him as “the n*gger in the White House.”

    Just because the use of a term in a particular context isn’t itself intended as a racist slur doesn’t mean the use was appropriate or necessary. On the other hand, everybody’s talking about the column, so that it means it did its real job: To serve as click-bait.

  7. goulo says:

    About the controversial specific word: I have no strong opinion about whether its use in the headline was inherently wrong. (I don’t think using a word – no matter what the reason or context – automatically taints a person. Is a dictionary or history book always wrong for including the word, for example? Is a novel like Huckleberry Finn always wrong? Is a news article quoting a person who says it always wrong?)

    But in any case, I was more trying to comment on your statement that “Obama is an American, simple as that”, which seemed to be suggesting that mentioning his race at all was inappropriate. It sounded like you’d also object to a title like “The Black Man in the White House” or any other such reference to him which indicated his race, but perhaps I misunderstood your point when you said “Obama is an American, simple as that”.

  8. The_Fixer says:

    I think he could have made the same point and gotten less of a stink if he would have put the whole headline, or at least the offending word, in quotes. It would have immediately let the reader know where he was coming from.

    I think that, like any disparaging term, it’s OK to use it in a clinical sense, or as part of a discussion. When used gratuitously, casually without much thought, or as a weapon, then it crosses the line.

    Obviously, that was not the author’s intent. So he gets a pass fro me. Knowing how some people overreact, perhaps is would have been better to put all, or part if the headline, in quotes.

  9. Elijah Shalis says:

    Everyone knows his race. It can’t be hidden. When you use a word like that you take ownership of it and that is wrong.

  10. lynchie says:

    Thanks it was there then disappeared. thought i crossed the line.

  11. No one deleted your comment, or you’d see a “comment deleted” message. I just went into Disqus and found that I think your comment might have been “pending,” which is weird. Disqus has hiccups :) In any case, there is a comment from you, below, responding to Siamer, is that the one you’re referring to? I checked disqus and there are no comments of your deleted.

  12. microdot says:

    I was a poor juvenile delinquent inner city white kid growing up in Detroit in the 60’s…I used the word, it was part of the language, Most of my best friends were not white. That’s how we talked. I used it to refer to myself. Language is contextual. The author of the article makes full use of the contextual power of the word, and we all know, words have power, but it is who uses them and how they are used. That is what makes the piece all the more powerful and why you are even talking it about this way, in this forum. I read the piece and I like what he had to say. Language has power and the way it is used is evocative…it is the writer, the speaker who infuses it with good or bad magic…Yes, I am offended by a racist using the word in an offensive, dehumanizing way…that is bad juju, but this was definitely good juju!

  13. caphillprof says:

    By outlawing words we win the battle but lose the war.

    The hatred is not directed toward the African-American in the White House, or the black in the White House, or the Negro in the White House, or the person of color in the White House.

  14. Naja pallida says:

    The entire goal of using the word was to get people to do exactly what you are doing – talk about the article. So, in that context, it was successful. Was it necessary to get the point of the article across? Certainly not.

  15. Minyassa says:

    I think that not being able to extrapolate a writer’s meaning from the context of the rest of the article is a sign of profound stupidity, similar to that displayed when Stephen Colbert was asked to speak at the White House correspondents dinner by people who had no idea whatsoever that he is a satirist and were shocked when he did his job. There is a point at which ignorance becomes inexcusable and can only be labeled as just plain stupidity.

  16. heimaey says:

    It’s not for me to say.

  17. Ryan says:

    I agree. We should take responsibility for our use of a word and make others take responsibility for theirs. An asterisk doesn’t diffuse a word’s power.

  18. lynchie says:

    Moderator: what was wrong with my post.

  19. Houndentenor says:

    I do not have to debase myself just because I am dealing with scum. Yes, quote the word in a direct quote (not an assumption that they would use the word, btw). But no I am still not going to use it. I still hear it since I live in deep Teabagistan and I hate it. I know what I think of people who use that word. I do not have to lower my standards to fight racism. And I’m not going to.

  20. Houndentenor says:

    I would call it ill-advised, but the answer is still yes. I would not have done that. I would only use it in a direct quote (meaning, an actual person who is being quoted by name actually used the word). Otherwise I would not use it at all.

  21. Indigo says:

    I think the nuance was perfectly well done. The fault lies in the Suey Park redux, as you call it, and that in turn, arises from reader response theory, that the reader sees and understands what the reader is prepared to see and understand. Curiously, we have an oversupply of knee-jerk commentators who don’t grasp nuance.

  22. goulo says:

    Yes, he is an American, but that’s not all he is (are you nothing other than your nationalty?), and an alternate title like “The American in the White House” (or anything else which avoids alluding to race) would completely fail to convey the point of the article, namely that the fact that he is black is a problem for some racists.

  23. S1AMER says:

    No, we should use the word when we’re quoting those who use it in all its vileness. Hiding evil words behind euphemisms (“N-word”) or ellisions (“N–r”) helps cover up evil that should be exposed for all to see and revile.

    (By the way, I feel exactly the same way about “F-word” and other bad words. When you’re quoting people who used evil terms, quote what they actually said. Yes, there are a few things that ought not be said in front of little children, but adults can and should hear what’s actually said.)

  24. Elijah Shalis says:

    I don’t think it helps to use that word. Obama is an American simple as that.

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