Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Psychological Impact of Racist Slurs

The painful history and consequences of the weaponization of the n-word.

Key points

  • There has been little research on the psychological impact of the n-word and other racial slurs.
  • Continued exposure to racial discrimination stress increases the risk of violence among African American young adults.
  • The Supreme Court defines fighting words as words that are a direct personal insult or an invitation to exchange fisticuffs.

In the midst of the heightened racial tensions following repeated incidents of police violence against unarmed Black people, Black psychologists have been in high demand, interviewing and speaking about the psychological impact of racism. While the focus has understandably been on police violence, there are other psychological stressors that negatively impact the well-being of Black people.

I was recently reminded of these other stressors while reading a story about an elderly man who died after being punched in Dunkin’ Donuts over a racial slur confrontation. A 77-year-old man began arguing with a Black manager at Dunkin’ Donuts, and according to the manager, the man was extremely rude and called him a racial slur. The manager asked him to repeat what he said, and the man repeated the racial slur. The manager then punched the man once in the face, which knocked the man out and caused him to hit his head on the floor. The unconscious elderly man was bleeding from the head and was later taken to a hospital, where he died two days later.

Let me be very clear from the outset. This was an avoidable tragedy, and no matter how racist or ignorant people are, and no matter how upsetting it is to experience the racism of being called a racial slur, it can not justify the killing of another human being (even if it is unintended).

The death of this elderly man has forever changed the lives of two families: his family, who is now dealing with the sudden loss of a loved one, and the family of the Black manager, who must now cope with the reality that their loved one may spend time in prison because of a split-second decision made in the heat of righteous anger.

Now I am making certain assumptions about this story that can only be supported once all of the facts are known. My first assumption is that the 77-year-old man was not Black and was likely White. My second assumption is that the racial slur was most likely the n-word. I say that because no other racial slur or epithet can provoke the strongest emotions and reactions from Black people than being called the n-word.

As I read this story, I immediately began thinking about what psychological research could help explain why the n-word is so triggering for Black people that it could provoke this type of violent response. However, a quick search of research literature in the discipline of psychology reveals that while psychology has a lot to say about the psychological impact of racism, there has been little focus specifically on the psychological impact of racial slurs, particularly the n-word.

In one of the only relevant studies that I could find linking the experience of racism to violent responses, researchers found that continued exposure to an accumulation of perceived daily stress and racial discrimination stress increased the risk of violence among African American young adults. Racial discrimination stress was measured by the Daily Life Experiences scale. It includes items such as “Being ignored, overlooked, or not given service (in a restaurant, store, etc.),” “Your ideas or opinions being minimized, ignored, or devalued,” and “Not being hired for a job.” There is only one item that approaches being called a racial slur, “Being insulted, called a name, or harassed.” However, I do not believe this item fully captures the potency of being called a racial slur, such as the n-word.

Fighting words as psychological injury

Communications scholar Lanier Holt argues that the n-word, its history, and the vitriolic reaction that it provokes suggest that it should legally be considered among “fighting words,” which the Supreme Court defined as words that, “by their very utterance, inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.” Fighting words are not protected by the First Amendment, and a 1989 Supreme Court case redefined fighting words as words that are “a direct personal insult or an invitation to exchange fisticuffs.”

There are many racial and ethnic slurs that have no doubt resulted in violent confrontations. Each uttered racial and ethnic slur is intended to completely dehumanize “the other.” In her book The Color of Our Future, journalist Farai Chidea referred to the n-word as “the nuclear bomb of racial epithets.” Among all of the deplorable racial and ethnic slurs, Lanier Holt argues that no other racial or ethnic slurs are so inflammatory that they have been truncated to a single letter (the “n-word”).

As children, many of us were taught the rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words shall never hurt me.” The intention of this rhyme was to help children cope with name-calling and verbal bullying. It was also intended to help children increase their resilience and to avoid physical retaliation.

While the lesson behind this rhyme is good for promoting resilience and important for preventing violent responses to hateful words, anecdotally, I know many peaceful and non-violent Black parents who would nevertheless not have a problem with their children hitting or physically fighting a White child for calling them the n-word. For these parents, words can hurt, and there is no worse indignity that their children could experience than being called the n-word, and such an indignity has to be met with physical violence that is proportional to the verbal and psychological violence that their children experienced.

The painful history and weaponization of the n-word

There is a very painful and deadly history of the usage of the n-word in this country. Lanier Holt cites a New York City Councilman as saying, “Every Black person murdered by lynching was probably called the n-word first.” For years, Professor and Jesuit Priest Joseph Brown used lynching pictures from the book Without Sanctuary to educate people, especially Black youth, on the violent history of the n-word and its association with lynching.

Many Black people experience a visceral reaction to being called the n-word. And while most Black people will not respond in violence, some most definitely will. While psychology prides itself on being the study of human behavior and being able to predict behavior, it remains an imprecise science. Could any psychologist have reasonably predicted that this particular Black manager would punch an elderly White man for calling him the n-word? It is very difficult to predict when the experience of racism will cause someone to finally snap.

In a recent article, past president of the Association of Black Psychologists Kevin Washington discusses his journey into healing the wounds of racism and oppression. He recalled being called the n-word in the first grade, a memory that still sticks with him to this day. While I do not have the best memory, one incident that I will never forget from adolescence is when I was called the n-word by a White child pointing at me, much to the embarrassment of the child’s parent. The child was barely verbal but had already been socialized to identify me by this racist slur.

We may not ever fully understand the exact circumstances under which the utterance of a racist slur will trigger a Black person (or, for that matter, any person) to have a violent response. For this reason, the psychological impact of racist slurs needs to be specifically studied and better understood.

Malcolm X once famously asked, “What do you call an educated negro with a B.A. or an M.A., with a B.S. or a Ph.D.? The answer? You call him a n@#$$, because that is what the white man calls him, a n@#$$.” The n-word has been weaponized in such a way as to inflict the most psychological damage against Black people possible. It is incredibly painful and serves as a constant reminder to Black people that no matter how much racial progress we have in this country, no matter how successful we are and how much education we have, the n-word will always serve as the trump card to try and put us in our place.

I was painfully reminded of the weaponization of the n-word after writing an op-ed defending the phrase "Black Lives Matter." The next day, I opened my email and saw a message with the n-word typed and highlighted in yellow (just in case I could not see it) 192 times.

The lesson to be learned here is simple: Stop calling Black people the n-word. Stop using the n-word. It contributes to the cumulative racial trauma of Black people.

More from Kevin Cokley Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today