Are Teens OK With Using the N-Word and Other Slurs?

New poll finds a change in attitudes among teens about the use and perception of different slurs.

Photo by Shutterstock

By Chris Hoenig

A new poll looks at the perception and use of the N-word and other slurs by teens.

Photo by Shutterstock

From Richie Incognito and the Miami Dolphins bullying scandal to Paula Deen’s lawsuit and very public descent, a number of news stories have recently brought the use and perception of the N-word into public debate. It’s been debated by readers of this website. Even Donald Trump has sounded off on it. But what do everyday Americans—teens, America’s next generation, in particular—think about it?

A new poll by the Associated Press–NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and MTV has found that more teens today believe the use of racist and sexist slurs is wrong, despite many believing they are just used jokingly. Still, the frequency with which teens see such language being used hasn’t changed.

Nearly 60 percent of teens say it’s wrong to use the slurs, whether in words or images, even as a joke—almost 10 points more than when the poll was taken in 2011. Two years ago, most respondents thought it was OK to use the language among friends who knew you were joking. Now, more than half say that it’s wrong in those circumstances as well.

The respondents, who range in age from 14 to 24, say overweight people are the most common targets of discriminatory language, followed by members of the LGBT community. Blacks and women follow as the next most frequent victims.

While racial insults are seen as the least hurtful by the teens, 60 percent believe comments and images that target Muslims and transgender people are meant to be, and are, the most hurtful. Slurs against the rest of the LGBT community and overweight Americans follow right behind.

Technology is largely to blame. The majority of YouTube and Facebook users and online gamers reported seeing and hearing slurs and other hurtful speech “sometimes” or “often” online. “I see things like that all the time,” said Vito Calli, a 15-year-old from Reading, Pa., whose family emigrated from Argentina. “It doesn’t really bother me unless they’re meaning it to offend me personally.”

Calli’s experiences were shared by several respondents. “Most of the time they’re just joking around, or talking about a celebrity,” said Jeff Hitchins, a white 24-year-old in Springfield, Pa. “Hate speech is becoming so commonplace, you forget where the words are coming from, and they actually hurt people without even realizing it.”

Maria Caprigno, an 18-year-old Norwood, Mass., resident who has struggled with obesity for most of her life, is one of the respondents who has been hurt by such comments. “It’s still socially acceptable to comment on someone’s weight and what someone is eating,” she said. “We need to change that about our culture before people realize posting stuff like that online is going to be offensive to someone.”

Still, a sweeping change in the perception of slurs is underway. Erick Fernandez of West New York, N.J., said he used hurtful language until learning about the history of the slurs and phrases while attending a summer camp in high school. Now 22 years old, he said he’d been fighting an uphill battle with his friends over it, until recently. “I tried to call some of my friends out on it but it was really to no avail,” he said. “They brush it off and five minutes later something else will come out. Why even bother?”

Jeffrey Bakken has seen his share of racist and sexist comments as a producer at a Chicago video-game company. The 23-year-old said that public awareness is one of the keys to helping young Americans realize the impact of what they say and post. “Kids were horrible before the Internet existed,” he said. “It’s just that now it’s more accessible to the public eye.”

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  • I’d just like to put out there that it’s not just teens. Many grown people do too. I find it undesirable. While some don’t care, such comments are hurtful and should be discontinued.

  • I’m not sure if we can actually say kids are “Ok” with using the N word and other slurs. (i’m only going to speak on the N word since it’s what I can most relate to). Kids that use the word have most likely grown up hearing it from other family members and family friends as so called terms of endearment. People say that the original meaning of the word is not the same as it is today….but I think that’s completely false. The use of the word and any other demeaning word should not be part of anyone’s vocabulary. Unfortunately there aren’t a huge amount of people who think that.

  • Interresting that in the film “Brian’s Song”, Gayle Sayers, an African-American actually laughed when the late Brian Piccolo, a European-American used that very word.

    • He could laugh because he knew: 1) Brian was so awkward; 2) Brian was trying something in for effect, maybe testing both of them; 3) Gale knows to this day (he is a personal acquaintance through common board work) that Brian genuinely loved him, and he was willing to take it from him despite the weight of the word. Hope that answers your question.

  • “The majority of YouTube and Facebook users and online gamers reported seeing and hearing slurs and other hurtful speech “sometimes” or “often” online.”

    Like Butter’s father, in a South Park episode once railed, “Damn you, internet!” But while we’re scapegoating pop tech and pop culture, might any rap and hiphop fans ever have reported seeing and hearing slurs and other hurtful speech in the published and broadcast music they seem to enjoy?

  • Jay-Z and the ‘rappers’ use the ‘n’ word.
    They are part of everyday ‘pop’ culture.
    They make the ‘n’ word acceptable to all.
    They need to stop it.
    Double Standard / hypocritical.

    • They definitely need to stop it. I’d also like to point out that while it may appear to be OK in pop culture because those who publicly disgrace themselves use it without regard to or in ignorance of its origin and real meaning, these people do NOT reflect the majority position of African Americans. I can understand the confusion to caucasions and other groups, and I sympathize with the position that it puts so many well meaning people into.

      Even though Jay-Z and others exploit the use of this word for profit and try to justify it with vague and ambiguous context, it is still wrong. If that word cannot be used by everyone with the same connotation or interpretation, it should not be used by ANYONE. It is not cute, cool, humorous, or positive. It is not OK! Please, people, respect yourselves and each other.

      • Amen! But if you are over 30 writing this, you are either “middle class,” “bougie” or just too old as if occupying any or all of those spaces invalidate your Black voice.

        • I am at least 2 of those descriptors and often accused of being the third…and proud. And I have a teenage daughter who did NOT grow up hearing the word used. Now that she is in high school with the masses, she hears it all the time and is usually ridiculed if she speaks against it. This is one of the many reasons why I am in favor of obliterating it!

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