Explosion Over the N-Word · 20 September 2005

By Scott Jaschik--Inside Higher Ed--09/20/05

When Kanye West blasted President Bush's treatment of poor black people in New Orleans after Katrina hit, the rapper unintentionally set off a hurricane of words in Florida.

The Independent Florida Alligator, the student newspaper, ran a cartoon last week that criticized West's statements by showing him holding a large playing card marked "The Race Card," and having Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, exclaim with scorn at West: "Nigga Please!" Since the cartoon ran, there have been multiple rallies against the student newspaper, with the latest drawing several hundred on Monday; the president of the university and other senior officials have condemned the cartoon and called on the paper to apologize for it; and there have been reports that students reading the paper on campus have had other students come up and grab the paper away from them, saying that it is racist.

In a statement published in the newspaper, Bernie Machen, Florida's president, said of the cartoon, "Such depictions reinforce hurtful and damaging stereotypes. They poison the ongoing struggle to overcome the racial barriers that divide our country, and give comfort to bigots who seek affirmation for their racism." He added that he and many students and faculty members were "disgusted by the image and discouraged that such an insensitive cartoon could be published in a newspaper that, while independent from the university, is written and edited by UF students."

The newspaper is holding its ground and refusing to apologize. In fact, it is going on the offensive, calling many of its critics hypocrites. An editorial published Monday noted that the university has invited West and numerous other performers to its campus, paying them tens of thousands of dollars - even though they use various forms of the n-word in their work.

In addition, the editorial noted that some of the students who are leading attacks on the paper use forms of the n-word in their profiles on Facebook, the popular Web site with which college students meet others and stay in touch with their friends. Many black students at Florida, the editorial said, are members of a group called "N*ggas That Pledge."

Mike Gimignani, editor of the paper, said in an interview Monday that the university was using "double standards" to criticize the paper. Editorial cartoons need to be short and to the point, and good cartoons get people talking and thinking, he said, adding that this one succeeded. "I would run it again tomorrow," he said.

In fact, the paper already has run the cartoon again - sort of. Some of the paper's critics have said that the problem was the lack of a full explanation of the cartoon's meaning. To make the point that editorial cartoons need to be succinct and provocative, the paper ran the same images, but with a lengthy quote from Rice blasting West, instead of using the words that offended people. In the second version of the cartoon, Rice says: "As per the cultural standard of African-American entertainers deriding each other using a racial and/or ethnic context, I would like to address you in the same way. You are a rapper who constantly uses terminology denigrating to the African-American community. I am an African-American and close friends with President Bush; hence, Bush does not hate black people. Please."

Gimignani stressed that he does not take racism or the use of racist phrases lightly. "I would never use that word in conversation," he said. But when it is making a political point, he said it should not be banned - especially when it is widely used by others.

The editor added that he has a diverse background himself, with Irish, Italian, Japanese and Jewish branches of his family, and said that he would apply the same standard to epithets about any of those groups. The protesters and administrators, he said, "are all grandstanding."

Organizers of the student protests did not respond to messages.

But in letters to the editor and online postings on the newspaper's Web site, black students have rejected the logic put forth by the newspaper editors. Ashley N. Mitchell called the cartoon "irresponsible and inappropriate," regardless of whether rappers and others use the n-word. "Sure, some black Americans have taken ownership of the term 'nigga.' Yet others, like myself, feel the word is detrimental to the growth of my community. Furthermore, we deserve the right to be respected in a media that is so widely circulated on campus and the greater Gainesville community," she wrote.

Another student, in a posting without his name, said, "It is true that many Black students found the problem with the word because a White person used it. I would like for the White community to realize that when White people have called Blacks 'nigger' for generations and Blacks find a means of 'changing' the meaning of the word as a source of 'strength,' it is still obviously not meant for White people to use."

Joe Hice, a university spokesman, said that Florida officials saw the use of the word in a newspaper as different from its use in a concert. People who don't want to hear the word "can choose not to buy a ticket" to a performance by someone who uses it, and can even protest if they want, Hice said. But in a newspaper, the word "stands out" and people have no idea that they are going to find it there. "This might have been more appropriate with an explanation," he said.

The controversy at Florida does not surprise Randall L. Kennedy, a law professor at Harvard University and the author of Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. Kennedy said in an interview Monday that after his book was published in 2002, one Southern university invited him to speak, and then uninvited him, fearful of any public discussion of the word whose history he had documented.

Kennedy said that he didn't know the facts of the Florida cartoon and so did not want to comment directly on whether it was appropriate. But he said that his general position is that "in making assessments, one needs to know a lot more than, 'did so and so use the term nigger or nigga.' For what purpose was the word used? What was the context?"

Using the word "is very combustible," he said, especially on a college campus. Many students hear variations of the word used in entertainment, "but a lot of younger people of all racial backgrounds don't have a good enough sense of the historical baggage associated with this term," Kennedy said.

"I'm not a person who says no one can ever use this word," he added. "But I do think people should know why people get so anxious about this word."