Explain Atticus's statement about the use of the word "nigger" in To Kill a Mockingbird.

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When Scout initially uses the racial slur "nigger" in front of her father, Atticus chastises her for using the word and tells Scout not to say it again because its "common." In chapter 11, Scout's racist neighbor refers to Atticus as a "nigger-lover," which upsets Jem to the point...

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When Scout initially uses the racial slur "nigger" in front of her father, Atticus chastises her for using the word and tells Scout not to say it again because its "common." In chapter 11, Scout's racist neighbor refers to Atticus as a "nigger-lover," which upsets Jem to the point that he destroys Mrs. Dubose's camellia bush. As punishment, Atticus makes Jem read to Mrs. Dubose every day for a month. One night, Scout asks her father the definition of a "nigger-lover" and explains to him that she felt offended by the tone that Francis and Mrs. Dubose used when they said the term. Atticus responds by telling his daughter,

"Scout . . . nigger-lover is just one of those terms that don’t mean anything—like snot-nose. It’s hard to explain—ignorant, trashy people use it when they think somebody’s favoring Negroes over and above themselves. It’s slipped into usage with some people like ourselves, when they want a common, ugly term to label somebody" (Lee, 112).

Atticus's explanation is direct and easy for Scout to understand. He comments that trashy people use the racial slur, which implies that his daughter should never repeat the ugly term. Atticus continues to elaborate on the racial slur by telling Scout,

". . . it’s never an insult to be called what somebody thinks is a bad name. It just shows you how poor that person is, it doesn’t hurt you" (Lee, 112).

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Scout has picked up a new word at school, as all children will, but it is not one that Atticus uses nor does he plan to allow his children to voice it in his presence. It is the "N" word, and when Scout asks Atticus if he "defend(s) niggers," Atticus tells her

     "Of course I do. Don't say nigger, Scout. That's common."  (Chapter 9)

When Scout defends herself by claiming that all of her classmates say it, Atticus responds,

     "From now on it'll be everybody less one--"  (Chapter 9)

The "N" word is commonly used in TKAM, just as it would have been in Alabama during the 1930s. The "N" word sometimes takes on a hateful tone, as when Bob Ewell describes Tom as " 'that black nigger yonder." It is used in jest (Miss Stephanie's bad joke about a "white nigger"); by Negroes themselves (Lula, Tom); and by children who don't always understand the full impact of the word. As the quintessential literary liberal Southern gentleman, Atticus never uses the "N" word, preferring the more acceptable "colored" or "Negro," and he plans to see that Jem and Scout follow suit.

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In Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus teaches Scout that using the word nigger is offensive and beneath her dignity.

In Chapter 9, Scout begins being persecuted by kids at school for her father's decision to defend Tom Robinson. When Cecil Jacobs makes Scout feel insulted by saying her "daddy defend[s] niggers," Scout attacks him even though she's not really sure what he means. She asks Jem what Cecil means the first chance she gets, who tells her to ask Atticus, leading Scout to next ask, "Do you defend niggers, Atticus?" Atticus replies that he certainly does but further says, "Don't say nigger, Scout. That's common."

One definition of common refers to anything that is "of mediocre or inferior quality; mean; low," meaning anything that is base, inferior, offensive, or tasteless (Random House Dictionary, 2016). Therefore, in telling Scout the word nigger is common, Atticus is saying that using the word is beneath her. He is saying that the rest of society uses the word because they are inferior people who want to be offensive by treating African Americans as inferior. In contrast, through his actions, Atticus teaches his children that all people, though not born with equal advantages and opportunities, deserve to be treated with equal respect. He treats Calpurnia with respect by calling her a "faithful member of this family" (Ch. 14), and he treats Robinson with respect by putting his all into defending Robinson in trial.

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Atticus wants his children to rise above the "common" behavior displayed by many of Maycomb's citizens of the 1930s. He employs Calpurnia and gives her responsibilities and trust that most others would not have provided a black housekeeper of the time. He also explains that a white person who takes advantage of a black man is

"ten times worse than cheatin' a white man... Says it's the worst thing you can do."

Atticus tells Jem that any white man who deliberately cheats a black man "is trash." Atticus also explains that "I couldn't hold my head up in town" if he did not seek justice for Tom. Atticus tries to teach his children by his own example, and Atticus treats all people equally. It is clear that he is respected by the black community when they stand in unison following the trial, and Atticus hopes that his children will grow up to respect people of all colors in a like manner.

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