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Damage Control

Busybody, this n-word battle isn't yours to fight

From Friday's Globe and Mail

The question

I go to a spin class two or three times a week. The instructor always plays a mix of pop, dance and hip hop. The problem is the hip-hop songs are rife with the n-word, it's relentless. N-word this, n-word that. It makes me feel uncomfortable on behalf of the two black women in the class. I tried to talk to the instructor, but she said I was being too "sensitive" and "PC" and she's selected the music over the years because the angry edge motivates people to work harder. I'm not black, I'm Jewish - but still, I wouldn't like to have to listen to music disparaging the Jewish people when I work out. Should I go over her head and ask management to force her to play music with less offensive lyrics?

The answer

The "n-word" confuses, I think, just about everyone these days.

It has a long, weird history, and currently occupies a curious niche in the culture.

On the one hand, people get offended if you even use a word that sounds like the n-word.

In 1999 a white mayoral aide in Washington had to resign after calling a budget "niggardly" (a word meaning "cheap" but with no etymological connection to the n-word), thus offending one of his colleagues.

He was later reinstated (with a different title), but declared himself humbled and sensitized to racial issues.

And as we all know, Michael Richards (Seinfeld's Kramer) ended whatever career he had left by using the n-word onstage at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles in 2006, hurling it at a heckler.

On the other hand, black musicians and comedians throw the word around like rappers throw around the "cheddar," a.k.a. cash, in their videos.

So what gives? Those in favour of black people using the n-word say: 1) by "co-opting" the language of slavery and the plantation, they rob the word of its meaning and power to hurt; 2) when it ends in "a" rather than "er" it has a whole different meaning.

The issue gets murky when white people try to follow suit. Last year, a fish-white, nerdy, bespectacled high-school teacher in Kentucky was suspended for saying "Sit down, [n-word]" to a student. He tried to defend himself by saying he was using the version ending in "a" rather than "er." There's a pathetic, and never less than about 30 per cent hilarious, video of him on YouTube using several homemade cue cards in an attempt to explain this to a black, female reporter, who just stares at him in horror as he uses the word over ... and over ... and over again.

Personally, if I were black I don't think I'd like to hear either version of the word, no matter how much melanin the person using it had in his/her skin.

I mean, I'm part Scottish. But I'm not sure I'd be too crazy about it if a rapper came along calling himself, I don't know, Kid Haggiz or something, and started rapping about how "I'm from the Highlands and I like to pinch pennies/I'm up all night drinking whisky, counting money, popping bennies/When I leave a tip, people say: "Who'd have figured he/Could be so stylish, and yet so niggardly?"

A racial stereotype is a racial stereotype, no matter where it comes from. (Although it is that true like many of my kin I'm quite ... careful with money. But och the noo, it's just prudence, laddies and lassies!)

But you know what? None of this has anything to do with you. Your race/creed/spiritual beliefs/sexual orientation/etc. have in no way been impugned.

Your spin sisters may love "gangsta" rap, dig the beat. Or, if not, if they're offended, they're adults; they can go complain on their own behalf.

You've done what you can to address your own discomfort. I'm sorry to use the "b" word, but you might be edging into busybody territory if you take your complaint any further.

Wait for something to come along that actually offends you personally, then ride that complaint, if you really have the time and the energy, all the way into the manager's office and beyond.

But until then, save your breath for cooling your porridge. Choose your battles: This one is not for you. It's too tiring to figure out what other people might be offended by. Let them worry about it on their own. If you continue to have any residual feelings of outrage on behalf of your classmates, use it to fuel your workout. Pump harder, work up a sweat, yeah!

Feel the burn, lassie.

David Eddie is a screenwriter and the author of Chump Change and Housebroken: Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Dad.

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