“N” is for Nullify

Paula deen bookThe notorious “N” word has had an interesting couples of weeks, thanks to a scandal surrounding a certain down-home cook with a mind for business.

Whether Paula Deen truly only said the word “nigger” once in her entire 66 years– an idea I find impossible to believe –or if she says it every day 50 times while she’s brushing her teeth, her supporters are missing the point. Were it not for the allegations of bigotry and unfair treatment of black employees, none of us would be giving Deen’s use of the word a second thought because we wouldn’t know about it.

Here are some of the retorts offered on blog posts to readers and writers who believe Paula Deen deserves to be pilloried in the media the way she is.

• She only said the n-word once, for God’s sake. She said she’s sorry. What more do you want?
• Are you so perfect that you can say you have never said anything about another person you wish you could take back?
• Black rappers keep using the word in their song lyrics. Black people continue to call each other “niggers” in their everyday lives. How can it be ok for them to use it, but such a crime for whites to use it?


Let’s talk about the S-word for a minute. When did we all decide that no matter what a person does to harm another’s body or psyche, all is forgiven when they say, “I’m sorry?” I see young parents out and about with their children. One brother hauls off and clocks his little brother upside his head. Mom or Dad sees what happens, grabs the older child and immediately orders him to tell his brother he’s sorry. So he does.

Is big brother really sorry for slugging the annoying little imp? Not one bit. If he is sorry for anything, it is for being put into “time out” or losing his TV viewing privileges.

As the character Jo in the movie For Colored Girls said, “Save your “sorry.” One thing I don’t need is anymore apologies. I got sorry greeting me at the front door. You can keep yours. I don’t know what to do with them… I can’t even… I have to throw some away. I can’t even get to the clothes in my closet for all the sorries. I’m not even sorry about you being sorry. “

IF – and please note that I do say if – IF Paula Deen talked with her staff about coordinating an event with an Old South plantation theme, replete with black men and women in white coats and bow ties playing the role of slaves, there is something off about Paula’s sensibilities. If  Deen treated her black employees in any way differently than her white employees, as has been alleged, there is room to wonder where her head is on the matter of race in 2013.

Now, back to the word in question.


There should be no confusion whatsoever on the parts of white people about the use of the word “nigger.” The word was born out of a slave culture and used to dehumanize the black slave in order to justify their relegation to the level of chattel. The word was created and continues to be used in order to nullify the worth as a human being of black people. Any time that word comes out of the mouth of a white person, whether it be in a joke, in an attempt to “get down with the brothers” or in a conversation among other white people, the effect of that word on the ears of a black person is “s/he has just tried to nullify my being.”

I’m sure many have said to themselves about Paula Deen’s admitted, one-time use of the word, “If ever there was a time for that word to be used, it was when a black man had a gun to her head.” Really? She described him to the police as a nigger. She didn’t call him a robber, or a thief or a criminal or any of the other things he most certainly was. No, she called him what in her mind was the absolute worst thing she could have called him. There is no circumstance under the sun that can justify the use of the word “nigger” by a white person, unless that person is determined to stake his or her claim to a membership in a club for bigots.

I am a woman in her late 60s. I fought like crazy for civil rights along with the rest of the white and black people of the time who were tired of Jim Crow and separate facilities. I hate the word “nigger.” Even as I type it, I feel the effects on my physical self. I wish the word were declared illegal and no one could say it without facing a fine or jail time. That’s how much I object to the use of this word by ANYONE – and that includes black people.

I remember the first time the word was ever used in my presence. I had made it all the way to college without ever being called a nigger to my face. I was sitting in the dorm on the floor with a circle of my friends. This was a time when everybody tried to look “cool” by taking up smoking. Problem was, some of us were incapable of financially supporting our habit, so often a cigarette would be passed around to share.

The girl who was to become the president of the sorority I ultimately joined blurted out:

“Ewwwwww. You nigger-lipped this cigarette.”

She wasn’t talking to me, but to another girl in the circle who was white. Actually, everybody but me was white. It took me a few beats to get my bearings. I had never heard this terminology, so I wondered if I had misheard her. I asked her what she said.

“Kathy nigger-lipped the filter on the cigarette. It’s all wet!”

I stomped out of the room. Everybody else sat silent, looking confused. Not even the girl who said it could figure out why I was so upset. They were all clueless about not only the meaning of the term, but also about the negative power of that word.

I schooled them. Big time.

I am not surprised that some white people still do not fully grasp the nastiness of that word, which they actually believe can be used by them in a non-mean way. Had I not calmed myself down and realized that these girls needed something more than the sight of my indignant butt leaving the room, they might have continued to say things like “nigger-lip.”

And yes, some black people do say it all the time. It’s been like that ever since I can remember. Even in my multi-cultural family, it was common to hear remarks like “stop acting like a nigger,” or “a nigger ain’t shit.” When used in that way, it carried the same nullifying power as it does when used by a white person. Over the generations, black people had internalized the disdain for their very being, I think, so they judged the behavior of other black people who behaved in ways that reminded them of their alleged inferiority.

A second way it was used was as an intra-group term of endearment. E.g., “You are my nigger” meant “I am your friend.” I remember a stepfather who had spent years in a segregated U.S. Air Force coming home with a saying:

“You are my nigger if you don’t get no bigger. But if you do get bigger, you’ll just be my bigger nigger.”
Again, as obtuse as it may seem to white people, the word had an entirely different meaning than it did when uttered by a white person.


According to my son who grew up in the advent of rap and hip-hop, the black artists of the 80s and 90s consciously commandeered the word. They purposefully took the word away from its original, nullifying meaning, changed the spelling to “Nigga” and changed the meaning to be synonymous with “person.” At the time, they didn’t anticipate their music and lyrics actually appealing to white, suburban teens who would immediately start throwing the word “nigga” around as if they were supposed to. The old school rappers don’t much like that and they will correct that behavior if it is done in their presence. The word belongs to black people, my son says, to do with whatever they want. It is still off-limits to white people, because the meaning changes on their tongues.

If a contemporary black person uses the actual word “Nigger” instead of the newly spelled “nigga,” the meaning is absolutely the same as it has always been and is meant to nullify that person’s being.

Paula Deen is not in trouble for “being big enough to admit” she has used the word. Deen is in trouble for not damning the word and herself for ever using it the minute that lawsuit deposition of hers was leaked. She is in trouble for possibly condoning abominable behavior on her brother’s part. She is in trouble for saying that she can’t determine what words and behaviors offend people. She is in trouble because she thinks the word “nigger” can be used in a non-mean way.

Lezlie Bishop is a multi-racial black woman who grew up in a segregated suburb of Chicago in the 40s, 50s and 60s. She writes on her blogs about current events, politics and lifestyles, as well as her own memoir pieces. She writes on Our Salon and Open Salon as L in the Southeast.

Image via Amazon.com

  • Thanks so much for this, Lezlie. Smart and well done. I continue to be amazed at the people who are defending her and who think this whole thing is about one word, supposedly said more than 25 years ago. But you school US here. Thanks again.

    • Lezlie Bishop

      Lisa, it is so frustrating to hear the one-dimensional defense from her supporters. It is clear to me that they don’t get it. I hope this helps…at least a little bit.

  • alicia

    I really appreciate this article, Lezlie. I didn’t know the facts until you, and the article you linked to by Daryl K. Washington, spelled them out. What I knew was the bits & pieces I’ve heard & then what Paula said on her Today interview. She lied about having diabetes until that eventually came out, and now she’s lying again. Your blog is super important as it calls readers to stop listening to what we want to believe or the media spin and realize what the facts truly are. I can’t believe Daryl’s account about the facts… how disturbing. I don’t care if those things were said back in the day, before civil rights, or now… they are equally disturbing either way. You & Daryl have made me cease from asking the question: did she really only say the word once? It’s quite obvious that Deen and her brother are racists. I never bought any of her products or watched her television shows, but I did question whether she deserved all of the fallout that she’s getting. Not any more. Thank you for this.

  • There is a history and even when she said “I is what I is”– it pertained to a racist joke.
    If there is a fire there is heat below it.
    Well done!

    • Lezlie Bishop

      I agree, Linda. Thanks.

  • Ron Powell

    Well done! Well written! There’s little else that can be said….If there were something else to add, I’d tell you so you could write it…..

    • Lezlie Bishop

      Hahahaha. Thank you, Mr. Powell.

  • Lezlie – THANK YOU. You have eloquently written everything I wish I could have verbalized about this incident/issue over the past few weeks. I’ve heard the “excuses” – about how this is no big deal, about how we are being “too hard” on Paula Deen. Your points are well-noted, my friend. And even more so? When you are a celebrity in the limelight, you are LOOKED UPON. People look to you how to respond, how to act. So if “something is off about [Paula’s] sensibilities” as you stated, it DOES affect the rest of us. It affects the kids, the adults, who read her magazine and watch her show. Her ideology on this matter has the ability to desensitize her fans to the issue, because she brushes it off as no big deal. True of all celebrities. So if a celebrity chooses fame, chooses to be in the spotlight, then they need to accept that they are a example and role model whether they like it or not. “With great power comes great responsibility.”

    Thank you again for this!

    • Stacey

      Did she say this after she became a celebrity.. Cause you certainly can’t go back and change your past. Interesting point if it were the case.. but since it’s not here… it’s just another justification on how you can attack someone because you disagree. I miss the world where people didn’t take EVERYTHING and I mean EVERYTHING so seriously… Our world is crumbling around us. Children have no respect for others, lawsuits are rampant, people do what “feels good” instead of what is right… and we spend all our energy attacking someone for words said in the past. I wonder what kind of world we would live in if people stopped crying foul all the time and led by example. Did something true, and pure, and beneficial. Instead of just screaming about something that they’d know nothing about if not for the media choosing to make a big deal out of it. I don’t see anyone attacking Alec Baldwin for his recent statements that ARE in the PRESENT and he is a CELEBRITY IN THE SPOTLIGHT. Where’s the blog post on this?

      • Stacey, did you even read this post? Did you read the deposition of what Paula said and did AFTER she was a celebrity and restaurant owner? Please don’t be one of the people who comments as if the world is judging Paula over “one incident years ago.” The fallout is because of her pattern of behavior, her CURRENT failure to admit, or even recognize, that her behavior was wrong, and her attempts to explain it away.

        When you are a celebrity or public figure, you are held to a higher standard. The companies pulling their support from her are well within their rights to do so.

    • Lezlie Bishop

      Thank you, Stephanie. It’s a great point you make about the responsibilities that go along with celebrity. It goes with the bling and the houses and yachts.

  • Koshersalaami

    Well done. You might want to cross-post this.

    One thing about “sorry.” Sorry means something when it means “I was wrong” and not “I regret that you’re reacting this way.” “Everyone said it back then” is not an apology, it’s a defense. It says “you’re overreacting.” It deflects responsibility.

    What I love most about this is your observation that Ms. Deen’s angry reaction at being robbed went to race, not behavior. “Black” is a description to a policeman; she did not choose a description. Ms. Deen still wouldn’t be vilified for now if she stated that it was a racist thing to say. There is no hint of introspection here.

    • Lezlie Bishop

      You have said perfectly the way I feel about “sorry.” Thanks for this.

  • Stacey

    I just find it sad that what she said so long ago is such big news now. Irregardless of how she felt when she said it, or what people think today, it’s complete OVERKILL. And since we have ALL said things we wish we could take back, have apologized for, and have even beaten ourselves up over… to say that the treatment she is receiving is justified… well, if you can judge so harshly, prepare to be judged yourself. Because not matter what your heritage, no one is without fault. And quite frankly, I think our country, youth, and society would be much better served if we attacked those in the media/film industry who promote promiscuity, drugs, drinking, poor treatment of women, etc. then to attack a women who grew up in the south for something she said so long ago when it was still probably quite common in the south to hear such things. And don’t even begin to guess or judge at how many times she has said it since. Cause you know that there are lots of things that you’ve said over your lifetime that you wish you hadn’t said. Or…. maybe you said in privacy.. but no one ever heard and you don’t want them to. And you should HAVE THAT RIGHT.

    • Stacey, I think, as Lezlie is pointing out, this is about so much more than one incident of using an offensive word. If you take a look at the articles that discuss the deposition transcript that gave rise to all of this, you can see it’s about how she treats people, especially her employees of color. Of course, I agree, that we all say things we regret at one point or another in our lives, but try putting yourself in the shoes of all the people who understand that sometimes even a “slip of the tongue” is about much deeper-rooted problems in our society.

    • Joanne is quite right in her response as is Lezlie in her article and as was I when I first pointed this out: this is not about one time word use or even whether it was “probably quite common in the south” so long ago. In fact, as a southerner only ten years younger than Deen, that word might have been common but only among uneducated, prejudiced people who were okay with perpetuating ugliness. Kindness and decency are never in excess.

    • Lezlie Bishop

      Stacy, I don’t have to “prepare” to be judged — I have been judged all my life by the color of my skin. To be honest, I am growing weary of what I consider the childish approach so many take when they say things like “…Cause you know that there are lots of things that you’ve said over your lifetime that you wish you hadn’t said. Or…. maybe you said in privacy.. but no one ever heard and you don’t want them to. And you should HAVE THAT RIGHT.”

      We do have that right. What we don’t have is the right to determine how others will react to what we have said while exercising that right. With every right we, as citizens of the world are afforded comes a corresponding responsibility to consider the consequences. And once again, Stacy, you must not have read this post in its entirety because the whole point is that it is NOT about Paula Deen saying “nigger” one time many years ago. It is about her behavior as reported by her accusers.

  • Sandra Miller

    Great essay. I find it impossible to believe that any white person on the FACE OF THE EARTH really,truly doesn’t understand why a white person has no reason or justification, ever, to use the word ‘nigger’. It disgusts me and hurts me just to type it, I so badly want to distance myself from the stinking miasma that hangs over it. I don’t think that I am smarter than everyone else, but seriously – if you know history then you know why you can’t use the word. If you know history and you think you can use the word nicely, then you are an entitled, deliberately ignorant a**hole. The good news is, you can change, Educate yourself and do it, before you have to pay your version of the price Paula Deen is paying.

    And I’ll add this – Paula’s apology was horrible. It was emotional, sure, but how sincere, really, is an apology that doesn’t directly name and address the injured? She basically said “Sorry, but I only said the word when a gun was literally held to my head – why that man MADE me say it!” She begged her fans and family for forgiveness “for any hurt I’ve caused.” The slippery wording even in the midst of her tears tells me everything I need to know.

    Thanks again Lezlie. It must be exhausting to take people to school all the time.

    • Lezlie Bishop

      Well said, Sandra. Yes, it is sometimes exhausting, but I have done it all my life. I was blessed, I guess, with the patience to listen to people who refuse to listen to me. When they notice I’m not screaming, threatening or crying, sometimes they calm down and become better able to “hear” what I’m saying. Unfortunately, as demonstrated above, sometimes they don’t. Thanks for your great comment.

  • Gina Ellis

    I hate “sorry” too, as if THAT word had power. I especially hate the current apology mode of: “If I offended anyone, I’m sorry.” Tho I don’t think Deen said that. What she did say was how much she was suffering and how much her friends who support her are suffering and blah blah. Which would make “If I offended anyone” look halfway empathetic!

    • Lezlie Bishop

      Gina, we are on the same page with those half-baked apologies. Spare me. And looking pitiful doesn’t make it any more genuine.

  • Joan Haskins

    Perfect. Simply perfect, Lezlie. Thank you~

    • Lezlie Bishop

      Thanks, Joanie!

  • Onislandtime

    THANK YOU! I keep wondering if perhaps the coverage in the South is completely leaving out the entire basis of the lawsuit against Deen. The lawsuit is about discriminatory practices in the workplace. Why are people insisting on making this about a woman using racist language in the distant past? We can’t afford to allow racists, or racist apologists to obscure the facts about exactly why Ms. Deen is being soundly rejected. People are not ok with this.

    • Lezlie Bishop

      Onislandtime, people “hear” what they want to hear. I wish that wasn’t true.

  • Marti Teitelbaum

    Thank you so much for this. I’m white, but I totally agree with your take on that word that I refuse to spell out. Reading many of the comments on Suzi’s article was very discouraging.
    I was seriously offended by people who defended Deen with statements such as “Since when is using a dis-tasteful word a crime?” The n-word is not just distasteful. Distasteful applies to talking about puke or excrement at the dinner table, not to words that are so damaging to others.
    or the comment: “As far as ‘the word’ is concerned, it is not a pretty word. In this day and time it is not accepted as it was years ago.” I’m almost 65 and have lived in Maryland, which only became a liberal place in the last few decades, since 1956 and i don’t remember a time when that word was “accepted.”
    I think one of the worst was the commenter who “was robbed 3Xs by the Same 1s and it pissed me off and I said something to that affect right in front of a Black Cop and then I explained to him that I don’t think all Black People are “Ns” but that is what I would refer to as a BAD 1, just like I refer to Bad White People as White Trash!” The absolute inability of that commenter to see how offensive he/she was almost left me speechless. The “Black Cop” deserves high honors for not verbally blasting her right then and there.

  • Some people have no idea what they are really saying.

    • Lezlie Bishop

      …which means they should probably keep their mouths shut, right?

  • marilyn sands

    So well written Lezlie & to the point! As a Stand-up Comic starting out in the 80’s in D.C. I learned those lessons well…and often!

    • Lezlie Bishop

      …as did Michael Richards! Thanks, Marilyn.

  • Lezlie Bishop

    Thanks, Marti. What do you want to bet that black cop had an ulcer?!?!?!

  • greenheron

    Thank you for the excellent lesson Lezlie. Somehow I made to this age without hearing the n-lip term for smoking, although I was an enthusiastic smoker. I still don’t really understand what it means, but don’t tell me okay.

    A handful of words have earned supreme power. The N word. The C word. F***ot. I understand that young people are appropriating them as a way to diminish their power, but I just can’t. And there are no counterpart words, equal in power. “Cracker”? “Whitey”? “Dick”? “Prick”? “Breeder”? None of these come even close. The thing about privilege is you come to think everything belongs to you.

    • Lezlie Bishop

      “The thing about privilege is you come to think everything belongs to you”


  • Lezlie you’re so right on. How can one say the word in a non-mean way? For the people that continue to say they are confused why its such a bad thing or that “she said she was sorry” just do not get it and need to read this!

  • This was so intelligent and eloquent – as I knew it would be. I still can’t believe this Paula Deen situation. I wish you could go back in time and make her read this. I wonder what she’d say or think about it? I wonder if it would have helped her think differently?

  • GabbyAbby

    Lezlie, you know I’m like a sand spur about facts. Since you touched on a few here, I’d like to clarify Dean has not said she told the police the robber was a “n*gger”. Her testimony was that she said it when relaying what had happened to her then husband. I imagine it might have gone a little something like this, “Then that n*gger put a gun to my head!! Can you believe it?!!” I can actually hear her in my head. Weirdly disconcerting. Stlll, a kitchen table conversation. Can’t sue for that. A habitual user? It’s not for me to say, I don;t know anything about the woman. So far we know she says she didn’t frequent Bubbas during the time in question, and did not institute any business practices, discriminatory or otherwise. The plaintiff’s attorney is reaching in an attempt to show perhaps she was made aware of questionable business practices in a consultant’s report and did not act on it, which she would have needed to do as part owner of the business. No one has seen the report, — this is absolutely speculative based on the line of questioning in the depo. That’s the legal side of it. As to my personal take on Deen’s behavior and the use and abuse of racial slurs? It’s in my Open Salon post. Hope you’ll stop in ~ you are prominently featured in the post!

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