The Volokh Conspiracy

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Free Speech

Prof. John McWhorter (Columbia) on "People Getting Fired for Referring to the N-Word—Activism or Performance Art?"

Today's item in Prof. McWhorter's substack newsletter, "It Bears Mentioning." (I just subscribed, for $60 for the year, though you can also subscribe for $5/month.)


You can read the item here; I believe it's accessible to non-subscribers. I've long loved Prof. McWhorter's lectures and podcasts on language, and his written work is similarly thoughtful and readable. Here are his concluding paragraphs (for those who don't know his work, he uses "Elect" to refer to adherents to what he sees as the quasi-religion of "anti-racism"):

Many ask why black people give whites the power to harm us so easily with this word. I for one have never and never will see it as a badge of strength to announce to white America that uttering a sequence of sounds will send me into therapy. I'd be embarrassed if it did, and that is what I call Black Power.

But I know I am missing the point. This performative transformation of the N-word into a taboo term affords a kind of power: black Elects get a way of getting back at whites by destroying their careers; white Elects spectating get to show they aren't racists by cheering on the witch-hunting. To these people all of this feels healthy, active, restoring, noble.

But the problem is that while it may feel that way to them, to the rest of us – among whom are legions of thoroughly reasonable, intelligent, concerned, and sensitive persons of all races  – this new take on the N-word looks paranoid, fake, and mean.

What kind of antiracism is that?

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