The Only Place Where the N-Word Is Allowed

The comedian Paul Mooney, who died earlier this month at the age of 79, was a trenchant, provocative observer of race. He wrote the notorious “Word Association” sketch, prominently featuring the n-word, for Richard Pryor’s famous 1975 guest-hosting gig on “Saturday Night Live.”

In his own standup, Mooney used the word as a master surgeon would wield a scalpel: “I say [n-word] 100 times every morning,” went one joke. “Makes my teeth white.” In Mooney’s hands, this taboo word forced an uncomfortable reckoning for audience members of all races — including Black ones like me — every time it came out of his mouth.

He and Pryor, he once explained, used it subversively: “It was so destructive — it was created by Whites to hurt and destroy — and we were trying to defuse it, trying to desensitize people to it. We did it every chance we got.” And they did not suffer professionally, as evidenced by the huge sales of Pryor’s seminal 1970s albums “That [N-word]’s Crazy” and “Bicentennial [N-word].”

After a trip to Africa in the early 1980s, however, Pryor stopped using the word in his act. Some two decades later, after former “Seinfeld” star Michael Richards attacked Black hecklers during a stand-up performance by hurling the n-word at them, Mooney announced that he too would never again use the word during his performances. He would just substitute “Black” in his jokes.

Easier said than done.

Having seen him twice over the space of a few years in the 2000s (before and after the Richards episode), I was sad to learn that Mooney’s bowdlerized jokes weren’t as funny. A certain bite was missing. Another notable side effect was that Mooney’s stage presence was drained, as if the self-censorship literally wore him down. Not surprisingly, the n-word eventually returned.

Ironically, in his hands, it was almost impossible to fully “desensitize” audiences to the word’s baneful power. As a comic, Mooney was a master at weaving together the art form’s dependence on absurdity and contradiction. We all laughed while listening to Mooney drop n-bombs all night. But I did not leave the club feeling compelled to recount the set.

The true “desensitizing” would come more than a decade and a half after Pryor’s ‘70s albums. Hip-hop — initially in gangsta rap, as pioneered in N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton” mass-marketed the n-word in a manner that not even Mooney could have imagined. It became just another lyric put over a catchy beat.

In rap, the word became ubiquitous, with numerous ripple effects: Young people — of various races — don’t merely listen to popular music. They share it, quote it and, in the privacy of their own homes, sing along to it.

Over the years, this has led to several incidents of 20-something White public figures having to explain social media posts from their teen years in which the n-word figured prominently. In most cases, the posts were found to be repeating rap lyrics. In the pre-cancel culture era, it was possible to survive by apologizing.

Conversely, older adults have seen their careers ended for merely repeating the word, even if they didn’t use it in an intentionally malicious manner.

The younger generation has a more complicated relationship with the word. Hip-hop’s lesson is that there’s money to be made in selling the n-word — figuratively and maybe even literally — to White audiences. Perhaps White adolescents want to use the word so they can sing along with their Black friends without facing social sanction. (Anyone riding the New York City subway can attest that the word is easily shared among teenage peers of varying hues and backgrounds.)

Meanwhile, academics grapple with the other aspect of this debate: the distinction between using the n-word in an explicitly derogatory fashion versus for a legitimate pedagogical purpose.

That tension won’t get resolved anytime soon. In the meantime, the debate over the n-word needs to address its ubiquity in pop culture. The question that needs to be asked is this: Is it possible that Mooney and Pryor’s goal of seeing the word desensitized has been too successful?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Robert A. George writes editorials on education and other policy issues for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously a member of the editorial boards of the New York Daily News and New York Post.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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