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Obama uses 'n-word': The best way to forward a conversation on race?

President Obama's reference of the 'n-word' in an interview has left the African-American community divided on who can say it and whether it should be allowed at all.

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President Obama at the Annual Meeting of the US Conference of Mayors in San Francisco on Friday. Obama shocked Americans when he made a reference to the use of the "n-word" in an interview released Monday, saying the US was far from being "cured" of racism.

Carolyn Kaster/AP

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After nearly two terms of cautiously dealing with episodes of racial tension in the US, President Obama’s candid use of a racist slur in an interview released Monday has recharged a debate about what the term means for African-Americans across the country.

The reference was made as President Obama told comedian Marc Maron that while race relations had improved over his lifetime, the Charleston shooting of nine African-Americans last week showed that the US is a long way from an environment free of discrimination.

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"Racism, we are not cured of it. And it's not just a matter of it not being polite to say [n-word] in public," said President Obama on the “WTF with Marc Maron” podcast. “Societies don't, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior.”

Civil rights activists have long criticized the president for playing it safe on issues of race in America, expressing disappointment about what they saw as shying away from opportunities to bring the debate to the fore.

But Obama’s frank use of the taboo term may signal that he is more willing now to have a candid discussion about the deep problems of racial inequality in the US, and has sparked a debate in the media about the word's appropriateness. While some say that the term's status as one of the most offensive words in the English language, often intended to cause grave offense, makes it inappropriate in all settings, others have defended the president for contextualizing discrimination in a realistic way.

“It's disingenuous to have a discussion about racism and not point to the language of racism," Jabari Asim, author of "The N Word: Who Can Say it, Who Shouldn't, and Why," told CNN, adding that Obama was "correct in his instincts" in using the word. Obama confidant Rev. Al Sharpton agreed, telling Politico, "He used it in the way it was meant to be used, which is as a racist, negative word.” 

In a particularly candid debate on CNN on Monday, two African-American journalists sparred over the use of the term.

The network’s legal analyst Sunny Hostin called the president’s move “ill-advised,” adding that it “opens up the field for others using it.”

“I think language matters, especially when it’s coming from the leader of the free world,” said Ms. Hostin.

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But anchor Don Lemon said reporters should be encouraged to quote stories of discrimination verbatim. Mr. Lemon emphasized that he was encouraging people to use the term in journalistic storytelling, when appropriate, not in general. “By not using that word, you’re sanitizing it,” he said.

All this focus on a single word in Obama's statement may prove his point: talking about the state of race relations in the US is difficult and uncomfortable. And as the debate over the appropriateness of the specific term used by the president continues, some are at least happy that a conversation about race is underway.

“It was a really important point for people to hear," senior adviser Valerie Jarrett told Politico. "I think he’s glad that he said it. And he is encouraged that people were able to hear his broader message.”