The "N," "R," and "G" Words

Jun 14, 2011

The "N" Word

I recently attended Arena Stage's world premiere performance of A Time to Kill, based on the book by John Grisham and adapted for the stage by Rupert Holmes. It was an outstanding evening of theater even though the word "nigger" was used frequently throughout the evening. The use of the word relates to the language in the book; it is representative of Mississippi in the 1980s, and it elicited emotions (at least in me) that I think both Grisham and Holmes wanted the audiences to feel.

Chanting of the word incited in me such feelings as fear, hatred (of what the KKK stands for), anxiety, guilt, discomfort... As I walked by Black audience members during the intermission and following the performance, I wondered what their thoughts were when this word was spewed by actors and the television monitors on stage. Did they feel the same as I did? Probably not. Did they have personal connections to the word which intensified their reactions?

Is this word and other minority slurs appropriate for theater? Is this language acceptable in literature? In music? On the streets?


The appropriateness of "nigger" in literature recently hit the headlines with the release of a new edition of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. In this new edition, the word "nigger" is replaced by the word "slave." The opposing opinions of this word replacement are passionate. CBS' 60 minutes captured the varied viewpoints in the segment Huckleberry Finn and the N-word debate.


"Nigger" is frequently used in music, particularly in hip hop. The question of whether this word should be sung and heard was debated earlier this year on The Oprah Winfrey Show by Oprah and Jay Z.

The "R" Word

In May 2011 Glee began broadcasting PSAs about the word "retarded" by comparing its unacceptability to "nigger," "spic," "chink," "fag," and "kike."

The "G" Word

More recently GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, tackled the misuse of the word "gay" with a series of PSAs in association with The Ad Council. Ads feature such celebrities as Hilary Duff and Wanda Sykes.

On- and off-stage words are powerful. The use of hurtful words should not be used in daily conversation. But, maybe, the arts provide a forum where the use of slurs is appropriate, if not used gratuitously.

I found the repeated use of "nigger" in A Time to Kill to be aesthetically appropriate. This six-letter word transported me immediately to the time and place - a world of discrimination and hatred, and bias and violent division; I connected viscerally with the characters and became sensitive to the context of their plights; and it challenged me intellectually to think about how the play relates to racial and cultural divides today.

Would I have experienced the performance in the same way without the word?

Did the word impact other audiences in the same way?  I don't know the answer to either of these questions. I would have welcomed the opportunity to discuss the latter with audience members.

Perhaps the arts when using slurs can spark conversations among diverse people that result in learning about the varied and profound impact of these words have had on individuals, a community, and our country at large. Is it possible that the arts could over time lessen the magnitude of slurs? Does the power of the arts include the ability to help heal the wounds that these slurs have caused?

Wise producers and presenters will thoroughly review the intent of using a slur, weighing the potential impact it may have on different communities of the audience: Will the word(s) elicit the desired response?


Other Related NPAC Articles


"Language versus Identity"
"The Power of Slurs"

Glossary of Terms

from the National MultiCultural Institute's Diversity Glossary

Chink - Offensive slang, used as a disparaging term for a person of Chinese birth or descent.

Fag - A derogatory term for a gay man, short for faggot.

Gay - A  homosexual; of or related to homosexuality. This term was said to originate in Paris during the 1930s and referred to the male homosexual underground community. The term was reclaimed during the Gay Liberation Movement as a source of pride. "Gay" is commonly used only to refer to homosexual men and not women (lesbians). However, some may take offense to the use of "gay" to describe something perceived as unpleasant or undesireable (e.g. "that's so gay").

KKK - The (K)u (K)lux (K)lan was an organizationally originally founded in Pulaski, Tennesse in 1866 that functioned as a "secret society organized in the South after the Civil War to Reassert white supremacy by means of terrorism. Klan members resisted the emancipation of black slaves and supported the white power structure through verbal assaults, beatings, whippings, lynching, cross-burning, and other forms of terrorism directed primarily towards blacks in the US. A second Klan was founded by William J. Smioons in 1915 known for its emphasis on militant patriotism and religious fundamentalism. Both Klan organizations were highly influential in politics and keeping out the black vote in many communities. Many organizations with this name are still active today. (Sources: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition.; The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia.)

Kike - Offensive slang, Used as a disparaging term for a Jew.

Nigger - Derogatory term historically used to refer to blacks in the United States. The term originates from the French word "negre" and the Spanish word "negro." Note: This term has become socially acceptable among some blacks in the U.S. who may use the term to address one another. However, not all blacks, condone the use of nigger (sometimes pronounced nigga) and may take offense to its use, or to being referred to as such.

Retarded - Mental retardation can be defined as "a disability characterized by significant limitations both in intellectual functioning and in adaptive behavior as expressed in conceptual, social, and practical adaptive skills. This disability originates before age 18. However, some may take offensive to the use of retarded to describe something perceived as unplesant or undesirable. (e.g. "that's so retarded").

Spic - Derogatory slang used to refer to a person of Latino/Hispanic origin.