In my workshops and classes on bridging cultural differences, eventually someone asks, “What should we call a person with such-and-such background or characteristic?” Here are true examples of how this question has been asked:

  • “Is it better to say Hispanic or Latino?  Asian or Oriental? disabled or handicapped?”
  • “Should I use the term ‘Black’ or ‘African American’? After all, Whites from South Africa who are naturalized in this country are African Americans, aren’t they?”
  • “Why is it okay to say ‘people of color,’ but not okay to say ‘colored person’”?
  • “Why can’t I refer to people with AIDS as AIDS victims? They are victims, aren’t they?”
  • “I don’t see why some of the women in my class object to being called ‘girls’. My wife and her friends all refer to themselves as girls”.

The Power of Words: To Use or Not Use the N-Word

I’ll address those questions in the next series of posts. First, though, we must consider the power of words to define and to hurt.

The recurring debate about using the N-Word is an excellent example in recent years.

In a widely reported episode of ABC’s The View (7/17/2008), Whoopi Goldberg and Sherri Shepard clashed with Elizabeth Hasselbeck on the use of the N-word. The debate was spawned by the release of a videotape in which Jesse Jackson used the term during a Fox News interview (Jackson didn’t know the mike was still on) even though he had publicly announced a campaign to stop its use. Whoopi and Sherri said that they approved of the word use among African Americans, but Caucasians could not use the term. Elizabeth thought this was a double standard.

A year later, Oprah Winfrey and Jay-Z, the popular rap singer had a similar clash over the term’s use. Jay-Z explained his use of the term saying, “It’s just become part of the way we communicate. My generation hasn’t had the same experience with that word that generations of people before us had. We weren’t so close to the pain. So in our way, we disarmed the word. We took the fire pin out of the grenade.” Oprah responded, “When I hear the N-word, I still think about every black man who was lynched–and the N-word was the last thing he heard. So we’ll just have to disagree about this.”

This year, the debate popped up again — this time among advocates of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Recently, it was announced a new edition of Huck Finn for younger readers will replace the “N-word” with “slave” and the word “Injun” wth “Indian.” Alan Gribben, the Twain scholar who spearheaded this effort, explained his rationale: “This is not an effort to render Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn colorblind….Race matters in these books. It’s a matter of how you express that in the 21st century.”

The idea to make this substitution came after years of teaching about the book when Gribben began substituting the word “slave” for the “N-word” while reading it aloud. One of his daughter’s best friends was an African American who “loathed the book [and] could barely read it.”

When he had an opportunity to conduct speaking engagements around the State of Alabama, Gribben realized that the book was headed for obsolescence if something wasn’t done.

As he explained, “After a number of talks, I was sought out by local teachers, and to a person they said we would love to teach [Tom Sawyer] and Huckleberry Finn, but we feel we can’t do it anymore. In the new classroom, it’s really not acceptable.” This dismayed him. “For a single word to form a barrier, it seems such an unnecessary state of affairs,” he commented.

The upheaval has been predictable. On the one hand are the advocates of free press and preservation of historical works who think that making the substitution is political correctness gone amok. On the other are legions of teachers and educators who want to make the book accessible and who, like Gribben, have witnessed the pain that words can cause.

What makes the Huck Finn controversy different from the Goldberg/Shepard-Hasselbeck and Winfrey-Jay Z debates is that Huck Finn is already written. The N-Word is used 219 times in the book. The question, then, is not whether to use the term, but whether to keep it in this particular edition for younger readers.

Those supporting retaining the N-Word argue that Twain chose that word to convey an irony. Adherents cite Pulitzer Prize-winner Russell Baker who explained the irony in a 1982 article:

The people whom Huck and Jim encounter on the Mississippi are drunkards, murderers, bullies, swindlers, lynchers, thieves, liars, mows, frauds, child abusers, numbskulls, hypocrites, windbags and traders in human flesh. All are white. The one man of honor in this phantasmagoria is ‘Nigger Jim,’ as Twain called him to emphasize the irony of a society in which the only true gentleman was held beneath contempt.

From this vantage point, Twain was “disarming the grenade” in his own way.

Those supporting the decision to remove the N-word argue that putting the book in the hands of more children is worth sacrificing fidelity to Twain’s original text. Plus, they maintain, any arguments for “the truth” about our country’s racial past should begin with actually telling the truth — which isn’t really happening.

The Huck Finn controversy (as well the Goldberg/Shepherd-Hasselbeck and Winfrey-Jay Z debates) illustrate the power of words. On the one hand are the sensitivities of those who are offended — if not deeply hurt — by the hidden stereotypes implied in the use of certain words. On the other are free speech advocates and those who believe that offended people should get a grip and not be so thin-skinned.

Should the N-Word Be Removed from Huck Finn?

I do have an opinion because I have skin in this game (every pun intended).

I was assigned Huckleberry Finn in college. I was the only African American in the class. We discussed the book for at least two weeks because our professor thought that it was one of the greatest novels in American literature.

I cringed the whole two weeks, sitting on the edge of my chair, fearful that someone in class would make a racial remark that I wouldn’t have been able to tolerate. Every racial stereotype I had grown up with was right there in the book. I was still a teenager and didn’t have the words to articulate what I was experiencing.

I definitely would have felt better had the word “slave” been used, although I may have still felt fearful and self-conscious — just not as much. I frankly don’t even remember whatever it was that I was supposed to learn about Huck Finn from the class. I only remember the experience as completely dismal and my intense relief when we finally moved on to another novel.

Yet despite that memory, I can see the arguments of those who think the N-word should stay in. I agree about the value of the historical record. We learn from history, or at least we are supposed to learn from it. I’m also an author. Would Twain have wanted his words altered? Most of those with an opinion on this believe not.

So what labels are okay to use anyway?

This controversy has significance for today’s workplace. There are clear cultural differences in what terms are preferred by whom.

I’ll say more Huck Finn and about labeling people in the workplace in the coming blog entries. There is no straight-forward solution to this issue.

Meanwhile, what do you think about it?


  1. Reframing Change, Chapter 5, Bridging Differences
  2. For a summary of the debate about the use of the N-Word in Huck Finn, click here. For arguments in favor of keeping the N-word in the book, click here and here.  For arguments opposed to keeping the N-word, click here and here.
  3. Baker, R. (April 14, 1982). Observer: the Only Gentleman. The New York Times, 860 words.

Filed under: bridging differences

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