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Don’t become desensitized to 'N-word'

Southampton Village Board of Trustees candidate Valerie

Southampton Village Board of Trustees candidate Valerie Smith, left, participates in a debate with her opponents on Monday evening. In front of an overflow crowd attending the debate at the Southampton Arts Center, Smith offered an apology for having used offensive language. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Valerie Smith, the challenger for a trustee position in Southampton Village, came under fire after a call she made to police went public last month. In the call, Smith called a group of people the “N-word” and said she was located in the “black neighborhood.”

Aside from Smith’s blatant use of derogatory language, Smith’s apology at the Southampton Village debate Monday night was perhaps more degrading than her use of the racial epithet. Smith apologized “for causing pain” with her words, but made the caveat that they were directed at a small group of people, not an entire race.

Unfortunately for Smith, her behavior shows that she doesn’t understand the roots of the N-word or why it’s offensive. Smith said clearly that she used the slur to describe a group of people near her house. That’s not being blunt, that’s being racist.

Frankly, Smith isn’t alone in her misguided use of the word. Phil Stair, sales manager of a bank in Flint, Michigan, resigned from his job Monday after a recording appeared online featured him blaming the Flint water crisis on N-words who “don’t pay their bills.” And just last week, Bill Maher called himself a “house [N-word]” during an interview with Sen. Ben Sasse. HBO hasn’t, and likely won’t, pull Maher from the network.

The N-word isn’t something to throw around. While some in the black community use the word affectionately, it can’t be assumed that the entire community is comfortable with the word being used at all.

Furthermore, when the word is used by those outside the black community, it triggers memories of a time when the N-word was used to disenfranchise the black community. Smith used the term as a racial slur, Stair used the term as a racial slur and Maher used the term in an attempt to make fun of himself despite being an older, white man.

Unfortunately, the more we hear a word, the more it becomes a part of mainstream language. And we can’t let that happen. We cannot become desensitized to the word’s history just because some think it’s easier to use the N-word instead of any other noun.

Melissa Holzberg is an intern with Newsday Opinion.