Media Criticism

At The New York Times, Intent Does Not Matter When Someone Uses 'the N-Word,' Except When It Does

The paper let linguist John McWhorter use the racial slur he was discussing but felt a need to explain that decision.


When The New York Times parted ways with veteran reporter Donald McNeil Jr. in February, the decision was based on the premise that using the word nigger, no matter the context, was a firing offense. "We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent," Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet and Managing Editor Joe Kahn said in a memo to staffers. As Reason's Matt Welch noted at the time, "the Grey Lady's management, under public pressure from more than 150 employees, decided that when it comes to speaking certain radioactive words, not only does intent not matter," but "any utterance is potentially a one-strike offense."

Today the Times published an essay by Columbia University linguist (and Reason contributor) John McWhorter, titled "How the N-Word Became Unsayable," that traces the evolution in attitudes underlying the policy that ended McNeil's 45-year career at the paper. McWhorter uses the word 34 times. As Opinion Editor Kathleen Kingsbury and Opinion Politics Editor Ezekiel Kweku explain, the decision to publish the slur repeatedly and in full made perfect sense given McWhorter's subject. In other words, intent matters after all.

McNeil's offense was saying nigger during a 2019 trip to Peru, part of a program for high school students. According to his account, he "was asked at dinner by a student whether I thought a classmate of hers should have been suspended for a video she had made as a 12-year-old in which she used a racial slur." To clarify the context, McNeil said, "I asked if she had called someone else the slur or whether she was rapping or quoting a book title. In asking the question, I used the slur itself." Just as McNeil thought context mattered in assessing the 12-year-old girl's offense, he imagined that "the context in which I used this ugly word could be defended."

McNeil eventually realized the error of his ways, but it was too late. He had inadvertently violated a taboo that was absolute and unforgiving despite its recency. Less than two decades ago, Pantheon published Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy's book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. As McWhorter notes, it is impossible to imagine a major publishing house allowing such a title nowadays.

Just a year later, a University of Virginia medical school employee provoked outrage with this comment: "I can't believe in this day and age that there's a sports team in our nation's capital named the Redskins. That is as derogatory to Indians as having a team called Niggers would be to blacks." Despite the anti-racist import of that observation, Julian Bond, who taught history at the university and was then the chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, demanded that the employee make a public apology and undergo sensitivity training. Bond said "his gut instinct was that the person deserved to simply be fired," McWhorter notes.

The impulse behind the nigger taboo is understandable. What began as a neutral term derived from the Latin niger ("black") and the Spanish negro became freighted with dehumanizing racism. The most striking example that McWhorter mentions is the juvenile doggerel that begins, "Eeny meeny miny moe…" The word nigger in the original was eventually replaced with tigger (or, as I learned it, tiger) as Americans became less tolerant of blatant bigotry. The rhyme, McWhorter says, is "a window into how brutally casual the usage of 'nigger' once was, happily trilled even by children at play."

Given that history, the expectation that people should avoid gratuitous use of the word is perfectly reasonable. But as Bond's response to the man who was troubled by the racist name of a football team illustrates, the demand that the word should never be uttered or written is completely irrational. And although Kennedy and McWhorter are both black, while McNeil is white, what matters is the intent of the speaker or writer, not the color of his skin.

Kingsbury and Kweku do not claim that only black people get a pass. McWhorter, whose essay is adapted from his new book Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter—Then, Now, and Forever, "traces the history of this particular word from its inception to its current place in our culture," they say. "He argues that the evolution of the use of this slur not only mirrors 'a gradual prohibition on avowed racism and the slurring of groups' but also demonstrates a cultural shift in the concerns of the words our culture considers truly profane: from the sexual and scatological referents of the classic four-letter words to the sociological referents of slurs. While the taboo against using most four-letter words has gradually faded, the taboo against slurs has intensified. We wanted to present our readers with this argument in the clearest and most respectful way."

That explanation is utterly unobjectionable, but the perceived need for it shows how absurd this issue has become. Kingsbury (who is white) not only thought her decision required a six-paragraph defense; she felt compelled to warn readers at the top of McWhorter's essay that "this article contains obscenities and racial slurs, fully spelled out" and refer them to the official justification for allowing a linguist to use the words he was writing about.

Other recent contexts in which the Times thought printing nigger was acceptable include movie dialogue (March 2021), a Frederick Douglass quotation (February 2021), an essay about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre (December 2020), a David Dinkins obituary (November 2020), a review of Barack Obama's book A Promised Land (November 2020), a news analysis comparing Donald Trump to George Wallace (July 2020), and an essay on police reform (June 2020). Yet the paper's executive editor, in explaining why McNeil had to go, claimed "we do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent." If there is any sensible or even consistent standard at work here, it is pretty hard to discern.

Reason's Nick Gillespie interviewed McWhorter in 2019:

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  1. Let the Old Grey Hag and her followers commit ideological autophagy. No need to stop them. Besides, don’t they know better? 🙂

    1. “the demand that the word should never be uttered or written is completely irrational.”

      Its not about rationality, is about power and control.

      1. Power and control I agree. It can be used in rap songs and movies but not in general communications. Nothing wrong with calling someone a nigger, not all black people are niggers either.

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    2. Sorry. My mistake. Thumb hit the flag while scrolling. Didn’t mean to.

  2. what matters is the intent of the speaker or writer, not the color of his skin.

    This is incorrect Mr. Sullum. The only thing that matters is the color of his skin.

    1. Apparently the bigger thing that matters is the political ideology of the speaker. A progressive can get away with saying it so long as he is being patronizing and offended on behalf of some other folks who mostly don’t give a shit. Thank God we have such smart elitists to speak for us.

      As part NA, I have a lot of family and friends who are half or more, and not a damn one of us cares about the Redskins, the Braves, the Indians or the slew of minor league, college, and HS teams with similar names. It’s always some Clorox pasty white half dead looking corpse of a politician or bureaucrat who speaks for us. Yes, they always manage to word things in such a way that some group like the NCAI half-heartedly agrees with the general principle, but the folks really don’t care. And ironically the AI stands for American Indians, which is supposedly just as annoying as CP in the NAACP.

      BTW, how come Lucky the Leprechaun and Mr Clean haven’t been fired from their product gig yet? I’m offended on behalf of all you white guys.

      1. From what I’ve heard (not sure how true), a lot of high school teams on Indian reservations are called the Red Skins.

      2. I’m offended on behalf of all you white guys.

        As a half Scandinavian, I’m particularly flummoxed by the prized products of my noble culture having been reduced to comic books.

        1. And Disney movies.

        2. You should be incensed that King Oscar is used to hawk sardines.

          1. Don’t show [o] any old Blackhawk comics with Olaf, who was Swedish, or Norwegian. It varied with the writer. Yumpin’ Yiminy! I do recommend the Thor parody, “Snore,” in Marvel’s What Th – ? #6. Unlike Not Brand Ecch‘s Sore, Son of Schmodin, Snore had Olaf’s accent. `Nuff said!

      3. “I’m offended on behalf of all you white guys.”

        ‘Bout time somebody was.

      4. What’s wrong with Mr. Clean? A slur against genies?

        1. Bald headed men are often Neo-Nazis.

    2. No, the only thing that matters is some undisclosed reason. This was an excuse for something they don’t want to talk about.

    1. Didn’t you say you were leaving and never coming back? That day Tulpa gave you a chance to actually follow through and you ran and hid like a punk bitch?

      I remember you trying to get a date with him too, actually.

      God damn that’s embarrassing for you!

      (Watch sarc call me Tulpa because what I said was true and he hates it)

      1. He was whining that he wasn’t appreciated here; no one asked him where he’d been.
        In fact, it’s hard to miss him if he won’t go away, and I mean it.

        1. He’s so desperate for attention.

  3. Seems to me that a big part of the problem is thinking that “racist language” is a thing at all. It’s just obviously absurd to claim that the mere utterance of a particular word is necessarily racist. You can use language to make a racist statement, but that is all about context and intent, not the words used.

      1. Who told you I was white?

        1. You sound white.

          1. Only white people have names like “Zeb.”

            1. He’s half. Short for Zebra.

      2. Sounds like something a white person would say. Prove me wrong.

    1. Seems to me that a big part of the problem is thinking that “racist language” is a thing at all.

      One might suggest that the ruling class likes to focus on language because it makes them feel like they’re doing something but in the confidence that it won’t actually make any difference at all.

      1. I’ve heard that idea with profanity as well – swear words are just words poor people used. Not sure if it’s historically accurate or not.

        1. Actually there was a study a while ago that said intelligent people swear more than the average person. I’m very intelligent.

          1. So most rich people are stupid

            1. No they just have less to curse about.

          2. I think the study said people who swear more than others tend to be more truthful, but maybe I’m wrong.

        2. After the Norman conquest the upper classes spoke French and the lower classes Old English. Some Anglo-Saxon words like “shit” (scitan) became viewed as crude or common when compared to French/Latin counterparts.

            1. F’ Jean Crapaud. How did the sasanach lose to them, anyway?

    2. Sure, but it’s an important part of subjecting every thought and deed to the lens of racism.

      I have known guys who flip everything a woman says into a sexual innuendo and say that it is her who is suggestive. More or less your stereotypic Michael Scott. We know these clowns as depraved morons and those of us who are beyond our college freshman year don’t give them the respect of considering their bullshit. So how is it that we tolerate this same mental deficiency in race-baiters?

  4. We live in very silly, stupid and sad times. Thanks Lefty race-baiters. You’ve done a wonderful job stoking racial animosity these past few decades.

    1. “You’ve done a wonderful job stoking racial animosity these past few decades.”

      It works for them; as in “vote for Democrats or it will be the end of civilization” [Nancy Peolosi, on 3 occasions that I can think of].

      “I cannot understand why any African American would not vote straight Democratic ticket.” [Michelle Obama, 2012]

  5. Jacob, please stop referencing the old grey nag.
    Nothing said by or in or about that particular democratic propaganda machine is worthy of note.

  6. “At The New York Times, Intent Does Not Matter When Someone Uses ‘the N-Word,’ Except When It Do”

    Ultimately, making unacceptable thoughts illegal is more important to progressives than anything else. No one at the New York Times is in favor of racism, but this isn’t about the guy who used the word in context. They feel compelled to police our thoughts by example.

    And they want the government to police our thoughts, which is why progressives are America’s most horrible people. They can’t both advocate their totalitarianism and show consideration for context. And being unyielding demonstrates their level of commitment to the cause in their minds.

    Are you against racism or aren’t you?

    1. The White Zone is for loading and unloading only

      1. Listen Betty, don’t start up with your White Zone shit again.

        1. Oh really, Vernon? Why pretend, we both know perfectly well what this is about. You want me to have an abortion.

      2. That is so racist.

        1. Best not search the album cover, then.

      3. Joe’s Garage; haven’t heard that in a while

    2. No one at the New York Times is in favor of racism,

      Not simply or overtly anyway, but evidence would suggest that if someone on their staff said, “No one should hang slaves or niggers, regardless of their skin color.” they would fire them despite the position that such action strongly implies support for.

      1. If you want to know if the New York Times is racist, ask if they supported the recent California referendum which would have allowed race preferences.

        They have a paywall, but they gave a subtle hint of their position by their editorial of Oct. 27, 2020, “Californians, Vote Yes on Prop 16” (Prop. 16 is the measure to allow racial preferences).

        The New York Times supports racial preferences, ergo, they are racists.

        (The referendum lost despite the Times’ stance.)

  7. I love John McWhorter the Fifth!!

  8. At The New York Times, Intent Does Not Matter When Someone Uses ‘the N-Word,’ Except When It Does

    Am I wrong in thinking that this headline doesn’t fully encapsulate the Kafkaesqueness of the situation?

    Intent doesn’t matter when someone uses ‘the N-Word’, except when it does, and, even then, only the intent we project upon it, not the intent the speaker actually has.

    1. Intent doesn’t matter when someone uses ‘the N-Word’, except when it does, and, even then, only the intent we project upon it, not the intent the speaker actually has.

      ^ This.

    2. “Intent doesn’t matter when someone uses ‘the N-Word’, except when it does, and, even then, only the intent we project upon it, not the intent the speaker actually has.”

      Thank you; trolls and threads of pissing matches notwithstanding, I still get good shit from these comments!

  9. Was watching “Little House on the Prairie” with my kid on Amazon Prime Video. There’s one episode in Season 6 that comes up with a “Language, Drug Use, Violence” warning on the screen.

    It turns out the language was one use of the n-word, which was, of course, in the context of a story about racism being bad. Never did figure out what the “drug use” warning was about; I don’t think anyone even had a sip of alcohol in the episode.

    1. Never did figure out what the “drug use” warning was about; I don’t think anyone even had a sip of alcohol in the episode.

      Did anyone smoke? I’ve seen warnings on Netflix about smoking even when the only person smoking is constantly trying to quit or dying of lung cancer.

      1. I think smoking usually has its own special category of warning. Might include drinking alcohol, though.

        1. Pretty sure the full-text reasons for the rating are somewhat whimsically based on the content provider. I know the FCC’s Parental Guidelines only carry DSLV (Drugs, Sex, Language, Violence) ratings.

          Does smoking weed go under drugs or smoking?

    2. Just admit you were watching it because you liked it.

    3. Maybe medicine or herbs were in use.

    4. It was the jenkem they inhaled.
      Scandinavian farmer turds cut with Lakota piles.
      They called it ‘prairie chum.’

    5. I vaguely remember a story line on little house on the prairie about the son getting addicted to heroin. Maybe it was one of the later episodes with that through line? I have not seen it since the original air date, so I might have lost some details… 🙂

      1. A quick Google says the storyline had him addicted to morphine, and that Melissa Gilbert was ironically hung over from a late night of partying the night before shooting.

  10. If the expectation is that people should avoid using the word why do blacks use it all the time? Or is “nigga” acceptable and if it is can everyone use it?

    1. Everyone* can but I suggest rolling your windows up before you start singing along to Snoop Dog in the car and you probably should just mumble through it while hanging out in mixed company.

      *excluding the mute of course.

    2. No, it is not.

      Which is one of the things that entrap young white people who interact with black people or black subculture. That girl who got rejected from the University of Tennessee, if memory serves, because a high school classmate saved a recording of her using a rap lyric to celebrate with that phrasing in it. Then there was the white TE on the Eagles a few years back who was made anathema for using it despite his black teammates dropping it constantly.

      If we want to make it a cultural norm to make that word socially unacceptable, then fine, but it has to be socially unacceptable in all cases. If not, you are sending mixed messages and naive people will be destroyed because the etiquette is too confusing.

      1. naive people will be destroyed because the etiquette is too confusing.

        Assumes etiquette isn’t deliberately confusing specifically to the point of taking down universe brains like Hitchens.

      2. Feature, not a bug.

    3. A, nigga is a different word with different meaning. b, nigga is not acceptable amongst respectable black people either.

    4. “ Nigga is used mainly among African Americans, but also among other minorities and ethnicities, in a neutral or familiar way and as a friendly term of address.”

      The definition of the word discriminates by the colour of the user.

      This is how the cancel / woke culture works. By changing the unsecured definition of words, they make words, speeches, laws meaningless, or anything they want them to mean.

      Secure our dictionaries and fuck the cancel culture.

  11. Eh, some of us grew up listening to Dr. Dre. It’s why we’ve been against the drug war for so long! Mostly 😉

    A word only has power if you allow it to have power.

  12. The big point has been missed: The New York Times audience requires explainers for the words that came out of someone’s mouth.

  13. I don’t believe for a second that McNeil was fired for the way he used that word at that time.

    He was gotten rid of, and “blasphemy” seemed a convenient way to do it

  14. One of my earliest memories was of my grandma remarking to a mother on her toddler’s behavior: “My what a well behaved pickaninny.” It wasn’t until more than a decade later that I understood what she said.

    That was my grandma. My granpa was far more racist. He rarely used the N work, but always had time to remark on the moral failings of any Black man on television. From Martin Luther King to Jesse Jackson, they were all upstart negros.

    Of course, that side of the family were diehard Democrats who would have openly worshipped FDR as the deity if they weren’t such dutiful Lutherans. They were also recent Scandinavian immigrants. The Republican side of the family was fine making off colored joke about people of color. As Italians they delighted in the mocking the Dago and the Wop. Then Italians became honorary Whites. But they never judged anyone by the color of their skin that I can ever recall.

  15. At The New York Times , Intent Does Not Matter

  16. So it’s sorta like “common sense gun control”. They won’t define it, but will tell you if you violate their constantly changing concept of it.

  17. If you’re black, nigger is a positively delightful word.

    You say I’m racist if I’m not black.

    How absolutely racist of you.

  18. In this recent Reason article, the custom of fully printing epithets in legal documents is shown.

    Which reminds me of the case where some Black law students attempted to cancel a professor for explicitly explaining the use of the word nigger in some legal document. Heaven help us if these snowflakes ever actually become lawyers.

  19. If intent matters then why does it not matter when other slurs are used?

    A slur is an act of aggression. Its aim is to try and hurt the person to whom it is directed. If you want to hurt a black person then you deride them for being black in the hope that it will trigger any self-doubt they might have about their dignity as a human being. A black person who is secure in their own sense of humanity will not be hurt but others may be and for someone intent on hurting a black person it is worth a try especially if you are desperate to hurt.

    Racist slurs are not racist behaviours but aggressive behaviours and should be treated as such. Once you begin to try and protect one group in society from the aggression of slurs you have to extend such care to everyone without fear or favour. This is an impossible task for institutions to administer. Aggression like this can be dealt with at a personal level by simply withdrawing from the company of the aggressor. If it escalates into harassment then perhaps law officers need to be called in.

    Black people are no more entitled to protection from this kind of aggression than anyone else who is a victim of it. Creating special rules for them is patronising and any black person who demands such shows a lack of dignity.

    1. Calling a spade a spade, or a criminal a criminal is “aggressive” to those who depend on lies.

      1. An insult is only aggressive in a metaphorical sense. A punch in the nose is aggressive in a real sense.

        Hey, you lousy Mick,* shut up or Ima punch you inna nose! is assault,
        but not battery.

        * I can say that, `cause I are one. Not a lousy one, I hope.

        1. I can say that also because you are one, it’s the truth and we’re not in communist China.

          1. And I can say that even if he isn’t one. ‘Hey you lousy Mick’ isn’t assault especially if he isn’t even Irish and also especially relative to ‘Ima punch you inna nose!’.

            1. I don’t afford lying the protection of 1a.

              It’s coercion, assuming the authority of truth to compel others to act in the liars interest instead of their own.

  20. How long before Biden bails out NYT?

  21. The New York Times could adopt the policy of distinguishing between use and mention. If Smith calls Jones a nigger, Smith is using the word “nigger.” But if Smith expresses the word “nigger” in a discussion of the etymology of the word, Smith is mentioning the word “nigger.” Only the use of the word can reasonably be regarded as offensive.

  22. Verbose article to reinforce what we already know: Liberals lie, they know they lie, and they do not care that they lie

    1. And they get snotty if you don’t pretend to believe their lies.


  23. It will soon be unacceptable to say or type “n word.”

    1. The _-word!

    2. This is not facetious. It is as it ever has been. The R-word was the politically correct term that replaced moron. Disabled replaced cripple, but they decided that too was problematic. So we went with handicapped. They decided that this also was offensive, and tried out “handi-capable”.. but that was laugh-out-loud stupid, so it didn’t stick. Jesse jackson was personally at the center of at least 4 attempts to change the acceptable lable for black people.

      Playing the language gotcha game is part of the plan.

  24. You mean iwe have to know why you said “Jehovah” before we can stone you to death?

    1. I pronounce that Yahooey.

  25. Journalists who sit in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, Reason.

  26. Now I finally know the most wonderful thing about tiggers.

  27. ok let’s get down to the core here…you have a paper which in the past hid the worst atrocities in the Ukraine and before that engaged in cheering the worst organized lynching in the US in New Orleans to Italians. They have for decades been driven by an almost visceral dislike of certain folks which I can only surmise is based on “old world” grudges…This behavior isn’t because they really think this but just another way to use an issue to again bash those they don’t like for more and more bizarre reasons…an object hatred of certain groups.

    Th NYT is full of folks Troytsky would be proud of…look at their love of war when it pushes their two primary control by extra government elites and an obession with sending American boys to fight and die in the middle east

  28. Where is the joker when we really need him?

  29. The Redskins bit is verbatim a Chris Rock bit from SNL’s Weekend Update where he actually said the N word.

    Also, can I nominate John Lennon and Yoko Ono for cancellation because of the song Woman Is The Nigger Of The World? Nothing more nihilistic than the lyrics to John Lennon songs. Always preferred Paul.

  30. Along the same lines, Joy Behar repeatedly misgendered Caitlyn Jenner on national TV just this week, and has appeared in blackface…. yet as a good little party aparachik she still has a job on national TV.

    I don’t know why we keep pretending like this is a real standard and not simply a power play.

  31. It’s really hard to care about anything said by the NY Times at this point. Same for the rest of the leftist media, especially the Washington Post, and the leftist corporate monopolies. They all burned their bridges ages ago, they choose a side and are apparently comfortable with it. They’re not interested in me, and I’m not interested in them.

    I’ve stopped paying attention, and I recommend all thinking people do likewise. Someday, when their house of cards completely collapses and they wake up wondering how in the name of everything sacred they came to be in this fix, then perhaps it might be worth holding a conversation with them. In the meantime, nope.

    I don’t like writing people off, but really, what alternative is there? In the name of peace, we just need to let them be and go about our lives.

  32. If in the company of BIPOC people if you think to yourself ” I must be sure not to use the N word because it will offend them” does that make you a racist? Asking for a friend.

    1. If you have to go around thinking that, maybe you should just keep your mouth shut. Because if you’re thinking “Don’t say _that_” every time you open your mouth, you are going to say it.

      It’s said that there used to be a TV newsperson named “Fred Tucker”. His colleagues came to fear that they would spoonerize his name live and on the air. And because they kept worrying about that, it was inevitable that one of them would introduce him as “Ted Fu…”.

  33. What a crock. The whole thing is just a way to control people, and shows a certain hypocrisy at the same time.

  34. Nonsensical hypocrisy must be their strategy,

  35. Really I have also notice this that New York Times dose not care about it.
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  36. Control and power I concur. It is appropriate in rap songs and films, but not in everyday contact. There’s nothing wrong with calling someone a nigger; nevertheless, not all black people are.

  37. There is no reason to care what the Duranty News has to say about race relations or any other subject.


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  39. Tekashi had the best take on the subject. When asked about why he says nigger and nigga so much, he said “What are you going to do about it?”

    That’s really all that anyone needs to say. Words are words. I don’t believe in racial superiority, black lives matter to me, and if my favorite song is Tupac’s Life Goes On, you bet your ass I’m not going to censor myself every time.

    In all seriousness, we know that there’s a difference between hard R slurs and nigga. Black comedians, musicians, and actors use it all the time. If we’re really going to achieve racial equality and black people will culturally use the word in a non-derogatory manner, what is a pasty white Jew like me supposed to do when I like San Andreas, the Boondocks, Chapelle’s Show, Boyz n the Hood, etc? Do I just stop talking about them? Never repeat funny jokes or favorite quotes? How is that equality?

    Do black people seriously want to feel like white people are always guarding themselves when discussing any black cultural products that they like? I seriously doubt it.

    1. Of course they do. Having the gold victim card has its benefits.

      1. “We can say nigger and you can’t because we’re victims of the holocaust….uh no, that was the Jews! We’re the victims of slavery perpetrated by whites. Just you forget that there were thousands of black slave owners. At least our gold card story isn’t complete bullshit”

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  41. The complaint is not that only black people get a pass its that a pass exists at all.

    1. It’s not just that. It’s that attitudes such as the Times shows here make it impossible to discuss the word at all. The “He said Jehovah” bit in the Monty Python _Life of Brian_ turns out to have been prescient.

      Not that this was the first time I’ve heard a similar argument. Back in the sixties, it was often noted that all porn laws should be void for vagueness – because a precise law would violate itself.

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