It’s one thing to ban a word because it is a pitiless slur often used amid physical violence. That black people use it—and have forever—as a term of endearment among one another complicates matters somewhat, but whites who ask “Why can’t we use it if they do?” have always struck me as disingenuous. It isn’t rocket science to understand that words can have more than one meaning, and a sensible rule is that blacks can use the word but whites can’t.
However, since the 1990s this rule has undergone mission creep, under which whites are not only not supposed to level the word as a slur, but are also not supposed to even refer to it. That idea has been entrenched for long enough now that it is coming to feel normal, but then normal is not always normal. It borders, as I suggested above, on taboo.
There are societies—such as many in Australia—in which it is forbidden to use ordinary language with in-laws, and this taboo is often extended even to referring to in-laws in conversation. Upon marrying, one must master a whole different vocabulary for talking to and/or about, for example, one’s mother-in-law. Many are familiar with the click sounds in Xhosa. However, clicks didn’t originate in Xhosa, but in lesser-known languages spoken by hunter-gatherers. Xhosa speakers, it is thought, adopted clicks from these other communities as part of an effort to create avoidance language, substituting them for ordinary sounds in Xhosa.
Practices like this sound neat to Americans—but also arbitrary. We understand that the practice is rooted in respect, but can’t help thinking that the official practice has drifted somewhat beyond what logic would dictate. The idea that nonblacks cannot even soberly refer to the N-word verges on this kind of thing. Note the word verges: The N-word is a slur and loaded in a way that, say, asking your mother-in-law what she’d like for dinner is not; sparing usage and serious caution are warranted. Respect, nevertheless, has morphed into a kind of genuflection that an outsider might find difficult to understand.