updated 6/7/2006 7:14:47 PM ET 2006-06-07T23:14:47

When Ozzie Wiggan first moved to a new high school in suburban New York, the black teenager would sometimes get into fights with white classmates over their casual use of the N-word.

But the 17-year-old soon came to the sad realization that hip-hop culture had made it popular — if not acceptable — for people of all races to use the epithet, often in a way they considered harmless.

“I think people have forgotten what the N-word truly means,” said Wiggan, who added that he doesn’t use it. “When I hear that word, it hurts me so much inside.”

Wiggan spoke Wednesday at a panel discussion on the most debated racial epithet in the country’s history. Several hundred New York City high school students attended the event at Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Harlem.

The discussion came as the trial of a white man accused of a hate-crime assault is nearing conclusion in Queens. The defendant, Nicholas Minucci, is accused of using the epithet before allegedly pummeling a black man, Glenn Moore, with a baseball bat in June 2005.

Minucci’s attorneys argue that Minucci used the word not as a racial slur but as an innocuous greeting. Minucci has said he used the word the same way he would use the word “pal.”

Ben Chavis, president of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, told the audience he believed the attack grew out of racial hostility. Chavis said Minucci’s attorneys are trying to exploit the way the word has been embraced in hip-hop culture.

“In high school if you called me a nigger, you got a fight,” said Chavis, 58, the former head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “What has happened to this word? It has evolved. What was a negative 50 years ago is now a term of endearment.”

Randall Kennedy, who wrote “Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word,” said that while the word has been used to “terrorize and humiliate” black Americans, “it’s also been used as a term of endearment and a gesture of solidarity.”

Ron Daniels, 64, a black radio talk show host who moderated the discussion, said he is bothered that the word has gained such widespread use outside the black community. He said it’s unimaginable that Jews would consider a debate about the epithet “kike.”

The discussion was the centerpiece of an awards ceremony for hiphopreader.com, a reading-incentive program sponsored by the National Urban League, the Verizon Foundation and the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network.

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