Why I Say The N-Word (and white people can’t).

*this post originally appeared on doingmoor.com*

Because f*ck respectability politics.

Earlier this week, former CNN host Piers Morgan wrote a completely off-base article for shock-site DailyMail on why Black people need to stop saying the N-word, because he’s an expert on all things Black and has studied the history of the racist language extensively (sarcasm).

Now, I don’t necessarily promote the use of the N-word and rarely feel comfortable saying it myself (hence my reluctance to type it here), but sometimes, in very specific settings where I know it won’t trigger painful emotions for the Black people in my presence, I do. At the same time, I undeniably believe there is no specific setting where white people can say it and not be racist. That’s a double standard, I know. Here’s why that’s OK:

  • Because I’m Black and know what it means, and what it means to me it could never mean to a white person.
  • Because what it means to a white person will always be tied to the history of white usage. That history was one of the murder, rape, lynching and slavery of Black people. Nigger was screamed when we were murdered. Nigger was screamed when we were raped. Nigger was screamed when we were lynched. Nigger was screamed when we were enslaved.
  • Because white people weren’t called Nigger while they were murdered, raped, lynched, and enslaved by Black people on a mass scale.
  • Because white racists don’t require an excuse to be racist, and getting rid of a word isn’t going to stop racism, which is the problem we should be focused on.
  • Because even though I say it during only the most rare occasions, giving up that right is endorsing the view that stopping will have any effect at all on racism. It won’t.
  • Because blaming Black people for white racism is so easy and racist itself.
  • Because it’s not the word that’s the problem I won’t devote my energy chasing red herrings.
  • Because even though they shouldn’t, white people will still use it regardless of what Black people do, and no one is putting a gun to their head to stop them. That makes them racist, though, and racism is the problem.
  • Because within a community there is always an inter-community language, even if that language is sometimes ironic and self-disparaging. I can call my sister an idiot, but you call her that and we might have to fight.
  • Because as much as I love white people, they will never be a part of this community. And that’s OK. We can share many other communities. We can be American together. We can be men together. We can be college grads together. But they can’t have my Black family, and I can’t have their’s. That’s OK.
  • Because context changes things, and we don’t say Black people shouldn’t wear make-up that matches Black skin, but we know Black face on white people is wrong.
  • Because instead of ignoring a bad word, we should be discussing what it means.
  • Because people need to learn that there are some things white people just can’t have.

All of us should be aware of how our language affects those around us, and it is understandable that the N-word is painful for a lot of people who experienced it when its use by white racists was widely accepted. But we must understand that this word’s use among Black people has nothing to do with its use among white people, and any conflation of the meaning behind Black use and white use of the word is misleading and dangerous.

Let us know your thoughts below!
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P.S. For further exploration of this topic, I suggest you check out the incredible Te-Nehisi Coates’ piece in the Atlantic from last year andhis and John Legend’s responses to Morgan.
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  1. Tribalism not Racism
    The reason to stop using that double standard is not because it promotes racism. It’s because it promotes tribalism. Tribalism, is a loyalty to ones own tribe, and it is cultural far more than it is physical. If you look at the history of tribalism in the United States, there has been plenty of it. It happened with the Japanese, the Chinese, the blacks, hispanics, the irish, well, just about everybody. Africans got the worst of it, in that they were subjected to a kind of slavery that is very rare in the history of the world: the total subjugation and tyranny of one people over another. It was grotesque.

    This put African Americans in a unique position. In order to survive, they had to invent their own culture, one that was neither African, nor European. African Americans showed everybody that they were more than a culture of oppression. African-American culture is truly unique in the world.

    The Problem
    While the other cultures in North America, who had chosen to conform outwardly, started being included into the club, African Americans, who have not integrated, still don’t have any of those luxuries. The differences in culture are vast, even to the casual observer, and those differences are maintaining a rift between African Americans, and Caucasians.

    People identify with those they have commonalities with. That’s why it’s good advice to dress like your boss, mirror a partner’s body language, and learn about sports. Commonalities build communities. But African Americans are, on the whole, striving as much as possible to create their own community, one that excludes all other races. By doing so, they exclude themselves as well.

    The discrimination that black people face in the United States is due in small part to overt racists, but in large part to unconscious tribalism. Every time an African-American uses the N-word, wears FUBU, or does any number of things that promote the divide between European Culture, and African-American culture, it is reinforcing that unconscious tribalism.

    Ethically, black people should have no obligation to conform with a culture that they don’t want to identify with, but practically, for their own success, they absolutely should.

    1) Black, African, and African American, are not synonyms. I use them differently, and carefully.
    2) Non-black cultures still face discrimination. It’s not gone, but it has improved substantially in the last 50 years. Except Muslims.
    3) I have no illusions that racism will just vanish overnight. It won’t. It takes decades, not days.

  2. rHi,

    As i just ended a very heated discussion with my daughter that stemmed out of racism at Boston Latin School I am left pondering.

    We were talking about the difference of feeling threatened and not being given equal opportunity. Her many AP level classes seem to be 90% – 99% white.

    I tried to explain that although this is a huge problem the issue at Boston Latin goes deeper and explained that people felt threatened singled out and uncomfortable in and out of school. (Bullying) And that these kids were being called the N word and overheard it being used an thrown around. I used the entire word while speaking with her and she got really mad at me and told me I should never ever use that word its not mine to use. I was pretty upset because I wasn’t using it in any context at all other than describing what was at stake. We then got onto the old topic of Huckleberry Finn (She is reading it in class). As you may imagine she left me thinking I am a fool a racist.

    Am I?

    • My two cents: an apology would suffice. No need to feel guilty. The problem with racism is that white people have been so conditioned not even to know how their actions might affect others. Stay committed to learning, and don’t let guilt or any other form of defensiveness get in the way 🙂

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