Comment: Tired of talk about the n-word? Then don’t use it

White journalists should know there’s no place for it, and that there’s no defense for having used it.

By Margaret Sullivan / The Washington Post

A lot of problems facing the media industry have no easy solutions: Rampant disinformation. The hemorrhaging of ad revenue that is destroying local newspapers. Cable news shows that offer little more than fodder for outrage.

So I’m a little surprised that our profession has been grappling lately with an issue that should be a no-brainer.

In recent weeks, two prominent journalists have been disciplined, largely because of uttering, or defending, the use of the worst racial slur in the English language.

First, it was Donald McNeil, a star New York Times reporter, who on a trip to Peru with high school students in 2019 said the n-word during a discussion about racist language. Complaints from parents and students about that and other offensive behavior they say he exhibited on the tour he was guiding went public a month ago after the Daily Beast reported on what happened.

Then came Slate’s Mike Pesca, a popular podcast host, who debated with colleagues via Slack, an online office messaging app, whether non-Black people should be allowed to quote the word. Pesca earlier had tried to use the word in a podcast segment and, by some accounts, had said it in another work context as well. (He has said he doesn’t recall that.)

McNeil has now resigned from the Times after a long and storied career, most recently reporting on the pandemic. He wasn’t out-and-out fired, but there’s little question that his departure was the result that Times management wanted, after all the vehement staff objections and the public criticism.

Pesca has been suspended indefinitely.

Plenty of commentators have since come forward to argue the merits of these outcomes, and to debate the whole idea of legitimately using or referring to the n-word.

PEN America issued a statement that McNeil’s losing his job over the use of a word was an infringement of free-speech principles. Former top New York Times editor Jill Abramson wrote in praise of McNeil’s reporting and suggested that Times readers hadn’t been hurt by what he said in a semiprivate setting. And Twitter has been ablaze with discussions about Pesca’s offense and whether it was really so bad, with complaints about “hypersensitivity” and “victimhood.”

So here’s the obvious answer to the problem: White people should just never say the word. Mysteriously, some can’t accept that.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, who led the Times’s prizewinning 1619 Project about the role of slavery in American history, put it this way in an interview: “People know, and particularly white people know, that this is a word that you don’t say, unless there’s absolutely 100-percent necessary, justifiable reasons to say it; for instance, you are reading a direct quote from someone in a very particular circumstance, academic setting, a speech, something like that.”

But that very rare occurrence is not what the McNeil or Pesca situations were about. Quite the contrary, wrote author Siva Vaidhyanathan, who supervises the Virginia Quarterly Review, a University of Virginia literary journal.

“Some white people just can’t stand the idea that they should be respectful and refrain from using one, single six-letter word in their adult lives.”

He’s right. So is a Slate staffer, Joel Anderson, who told the New York Times: “For Black employees, it’s an extremely small ask to not hear that particular slur and not have debate about whether it’s OK for white employees to use that particular slur.”

I can’t know firsthand the pain it causes for a Black person to have to hear or read that hateful word, or to observe that one’s white colleagues think it might be acceptable.

As a female journalist, though, I have some small understanding of the way particular words are meant to maim. Over the past several years, when I’ve written critically about Donald Trump or about radical-right media or political figures, my email and social media reliably will fill up with verbal attackers armed with what I’ll call the c-word, often accompanied by vile ideas about how body parts of mine should be mutilated.

Am I being hypersensitive to think this word is unacceptable in practically any setting? I don’t think so.

What’s more, it’s not hard to believe that any white person who would freely utter or defend the most offensive racial slur in English may well be someone with a history of other problems.

I disagree with those who would conflate legitimate upset with partisan politics, as Times columnist Ben Smith did in a column about McNeil. He suggested that the internal disruption over McNeil’s wrongdoing had sweeping journalistic implications; evidence, perhaps, of the paper’s move toward a different approach to the news, dictated by younger staff members with a political agenda.

“Is The Times the leading newspaper for like-minded, left-leaning Americans?” Smith asked. “Or is it trying to hold what seems to be a disappearing center in a deeply divided country? Is it Elizabeth Warren or Joe Biden?”

Demanding basic respect from professional colleagues is not about leftist politics run amok. And recognizing that a journalist who would utter or defend the n-word may be insensitive in other important ways is not evidence of a woke mob on the loose in the newsroom.

No, this reaction is fully reasonable. It’s evidence of people inside media organizations who are sick and tired of being disrespected, and who are refusing to shrug off that disrespect.

There are some complicated issues here, no doubt, as a new Times report on its own diversity challenges acknowledged. But for one aspect of them, there’s a simple answer, especially for white journalists: Don’t say the word, and don’t try to defend using it. It would be a good start.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper.

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