In a way, I guess this discussion is evidence of how far removed this generation is from the culture of racism that was pervasive in the last two centuries. It just seems a bit whiny to insist that no one can tell you what word you can't use. I'm certainly not a fan of rampant, witch-hunting PCism, but this particular word is, in this country, probably the worst thing you can call someone. It carries with it a huge amount of baggage that, if you want to use it, you must not truly understand the magnitude of. Of course it doesn't matter so much when someone calls a white person "cracker" or "honky." Why? B/c no one ever tried to keep us in a position of societal inferiority. No one ever beat us up for no good reason, other than the fact that we were white. No one ever tried to accuse us of "not knowing our place." No one kept us out of jobs we were qualified for, because of our race. We cannot understand, because we were never in that position. And the same attitudes that are attached to that word still work to keep blacks in a position of inferiority, PLUS call to mind a terrible time in our history. Why wouldn't someone assume that you meant to call to mind the history associated with the word?
Sure, it's only a word. There are also times when the word police goes too far--like when that guy accused someone of being "niggardly," meaning "miserly," and his fellow employees assumed it was a racial slur--and he ended up being forced to resign. I'm uncomfortable with that sort of kneejerk witchhunting. But to walk up to someone and call them the n-word? No excuse, people. Accept that it's offensive. I don't really understand why that's so hard.
There seems to be a big demand for equality and fairness in the use of the word. It's weird, to me. We've all been on this planet long enough to know that life doesn't work that way. I grew up in a small town in the South. I've heard the word many times, from people who were malicious in their intent, and from older folks who were just relics of their time. It was always offensive to me, b/c I could FEEL the history attached to it. I never wanted to get the chance to say it, in public or in private. I guess I just don't get the "don't tell me what I can or can't say" argument. Why would you want to say something that hurts someone outright?