It’s one of the most contentious words in America. Who can use? Who can’t? Should its meaning change when used by different people? It’s considered a curse word by a large segment of the United States and is prohibited from our major media and entertainment outlets–except for hip hop. Geoff Harkness explores this issue in his article “Hip Hop Culture and America’s Most Taboo Word” (Contexts, Fall 2008). We’ve put together some ways to use this article in your class on race, music, or popular culture:
- Listen to this NPR interview with hip-hop icon KRS-ONE and comedy legend Paul Mooney (either in class or have students listen to it at home).
- Have students form small groups and discuss, based on what they read in this article, whether they think the “n-word” should be acceptable for anyone to use and if so, who should be able to use and who shouldn’t?
- Use these questions to start a class discussion:
1) What social factors and cultural ties help explain the bonds Latino and black hip-hoppers express in this article?
2) As its music and culture has become more mainstream and moved across class and racial boundaries, how has hip-hop changed?
3) Like the “n-word”, groups sometimes “reclaim” words that are used as slurs to turn them into points of pride. Discuss the history and evolution of words like “ghetto,” “redneck,” “queer,” “faggot,” and “bitch.” Why have people sometimes chosen to reclaim derogatory words like these?
4) Some words are loaded even if they seem neutral. Consider words like “feminist,” “patriot,” “communist.” What meanings and implications are built into these words? Can you think of similar words that evoke strong feelings?