The Idea That Whites Can’t Refer to the N-Word

John McWhorter in The Atlantic:

Laurie Sheck is a professor of creative writing at the New School in New York, a decades-long veteran of the classroom, a widely published novelist and essayist, and a Pulitzer nominee. She’s also spent the summer in trouble with her bosses for possibly being a racist.

Her offense? You may not have known that despite the resonance of the title of the renowned 2016 documentary on James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, Baldwin’s actual statement, during a 1963 appearance on public television, was “I’m not a nigger.” Early last spring semester, Sheck, who is white, was teaching a graduate seminar on Baldwin, and one of the questions she posed for discussion was why the documentary title had substituted “Negro” for “nigger.”

That’s good teaching. She was evoking a word with one of the richest, nastiest, and most complex ranges of meaning in the English language. What did Baldwin mean by summoning it in 1963? Why, today, did the creators of that documentary substitute “Negro”? And having answered those questions, then we might examine the particular resonances of that word.

More here.