Django Unchained and the N-Word

I’m not sure why, but this silly series of GIFs has made me totally reconsider the n-word. Up to this point, I had been of the thinking that one should not use the word unless it is already common to one’s own experience, unless one has some non-academic understanding such that implicit quotation marks aren’t required. In other words, white people don’t find themselves on the receiving end of this word in the real world, so they shouldn’t get to say it and wield its power for their own rhetorical ends. Such rhetorical use doesn’t really reflect the word’s true meaning. They have a fake understanding, a sort of book-ish knowledge, of the word so they feel it’s right that they should refer to it in a fake, book-ish way as “the n-word.” But this series of GIFs implies that the use of academic language can actually be a safety mechanism to prevent a person from having to properly deal with reality, which is something I’d never really understood. What Samuel L. Jackson’s provocation says is that white people should cringe when saying this word, but it’s better to cringe than to detach oneself from “the conversation” with vague, not-real language. I’m not totally swayed to this way of thinking yet, but I am much more convinced by these gifs than anything else I’ve seen or read.

Still, the fact that we don’t really know even how to talk, that we’re in a place where we have to choose between the lesser of two evils (a fake, rhetorical, academic understanding vs. a fraught discourse using an evil word) should be a testament to the lasting absurdity of slavery.


Best Pictures is a short series about this year’s Academy Award-nominated films.

Nathan Pensky is a writer and editor living in rural Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter.