Panelists and students remained divided on if the N-word is appropriate for use by black students at the N-word Forum, held Feb. 12 at the University Student Union.
The idea of the forum, organized by the NAACP student chapter, grew out of discussions with friends after viewing the documentary of the same name, said Yemi Kuku, president of CSUN NAACP. He noted that there had not been a formal discussion about the word’s use in an academic format. The chapter wants to use the forum as a way to address the controversy, he said.
“This event gets at dealing with the social ramifications around the issue,” he said.
Clarification is needed on the difference between the N-word and the common term used today by blacks, said actor Leonard Thomas.
“Nigger is the N word. Nigga is not,” Thomas said. He added that blacks have adapted a positive variation of the word, therefore changing its meaning.
“We don’t use it as a racist term,” he said.
During the discussion, some panelists felt passionately that there is no justification for using the word. “We’re slapping our own selves in the face,” said actress Rae’ven Larrymore-Kelly. If young people knew about the word’s roots in slavery, they would not use it at all, she said.
Students expressed similar sentiments.
“Most of us don’t know what the true meaning of the word is,” said James Darby IV, freshman biology major.
But the word has evolved and is now being used as a term of endearment among peers, others said.
“We’re defining for ourselves how we’re going to use our own language,” said Jody Armour, law professor at the University of Southern California.
American blacks have the ability and creativity to shape the meaning and usage of words with the times, he said.
While some understood the reasoning, they remained skeptical.
There is no difference between the two words, Darby said.
Others said the overall discussion focused too much on personal impressions.
“We’re taking it too seriously,” Thomas said. The word’s meaning depends on the context in which it is used, he added.
While acknowledging the positive contexts in which it is used, some said they felt that better words could be put to use.
“We can say endearment, but we may need to find a better way to frame that,” said Dr. Adilifu Nama, professor of Pan-African studies.
Other panelists acknowledged that the historical use of the word, while transformed, would not erase its history.
“You can’t separate the fruit from the tree,” Armour said. “Nigga is an ironic derivative of nigger. Every time you use that, you have that luggage.”
Darby agreed that the forum supported and strengthened his view: The N-word has always been inappropriate.
“Words have power. You don’t just use them and throw away their meaning,” he said.
The discussion also raised the issue of how other racial and ethnic groups use the adapted word to imitate black culture, which tends to set the standard for trends.
“Just because we say it, does that give other races the right to say it?” asked Michael Lathrop, senior biology major, when addressing the panel.
If blacks decided to stop using the word, then others would too, Kelly said.
“If we make it not cool, then it wouldn’t be cool anymore,” she said.
Kelly, Thomas and Armour were three of five panelists present at the forum. Other panelists included film director Eric Gordon and Bishop W. Todd Erving from the One Thousand Churches Connected program, a partner with Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH coalition.
Overall, organizers thought the event went well.
“It exceeded our goals,” Kuku said. The event allowed students to engage in discussion with panelists rather than just listen to a lecture, he said.
But there was one drawback.
“I would have liked to hear more about the issue from non-blacks,” said Tom Spencer-Walters, Chair of the Pan-African studies department, who noted there was a diverse audience.
The chapter plans to continue the discussions, said Kuku. Another N-word Forum is scheduled for Feb. 22 at 6 p.m. at the Black House. The forum will include another panel discussion, as well as a screening of the documentary.
The chapter hopes that the university will recognize the contribution the forum is making, he said.
“If we continue to support events like this, we’ll find our academic environment more beneficial for the students and the staff, and everyone else involved,” Kuku said.