No, You Still Can't Say the N-Word if You're Not Black



Fellow white people: this article is addressed to those of you who use the n-word in casual context. I am speaking to you as a person who genuinely wants to educate and help you. If, at the end of reading this, you feel like you still need to say the n-word word, I can't help you understand why it is not yours.


First, we will review some history, via the African American Registry’s article on the n-word. This word most likely originated in the 1600s-1700s, when African slaves were first brought to America. “No matter what its origins, by the early 1800s, it was firmly established as a derogative name,” Middleton and Pilgrim state. “It strengthened the stereotype of the lazy, stupid, dirty, worthless nobody.”


The word was obviously a term used from slave masters to slaves. This fact alone should be enough to show that the word was never meant as a friendly one. This was a word that originated because the masters did not care if the slaves had names, cultural history, or anything else - they were given the word as an offensive, dehumanizing nickname. It was a word a master called out with hatred and evil in his voice to call attention to someone he did not give an ounce of a damn about. It was a word that reinforced that slave masters saw black slaves as subhuman, and only worth the work they could perform.





In addition to its practical purpose as a name for slaves, the n-word reinforced stereotypes held about black people at the time (and now). As stated above, black people are commonly stereotyped as unintelligent, lazy, and always second to the white race. This is a stereotype that has gone on for hundreds of years, and one could only imagine the pain would run deep in a black person’s mind even today which is why you should listen to them when they tell you not to use it. Non-black POC and whites still use the “well, I don’t hate black people, but I hate n*****s” rhetoric constantly to this day, as if it makes a difference, but that is not how the word was intended. “N*****r” is not a useful word to describe an obnoxious black person. It was intended as a name for any black person.


A compelling way to give a word less power towards a marginalized group is to reclaim it. Feminists sometimes use the word “bitch” to describe themselves, taking its power away from men. Body positivity activists use the word “fat” or “skinny” as nothing more than descriptors instead of insults, and sex positive activists use the words “slut” and “whore,” in hopes of taking the power away from someone who might use it as an insult towards them. In the same vein, black people reclaimed the word as a term of endearment and expression in the 1970s. The earliest documented case of it being used in early rap and hip hop was 1979, on Scoopy Rap and Family Rap. In a more well-known case, Grandmaster Flash used it in his 1983 track, “New York New York.” Additionally, it can be used as an exclamation. As an example, watch the video below, which focuses on how various tones of voice can change the use of the word “bitch.”




All of the ways “bitch” is used in this video can be replaced with “n*gga” if you are black, thus the use of this video as an example.


Additionally, “n*gga” can just be a term for a (usually black) man, exemplified in SZA’s song “Love Galore,” (“Done with these niggas, I don't love these niggas/I dust off these niggas, do it for fun / … Skrrr, skrrr on niggas/Skirt up on niggas”). A use of the word with a friendlier connotation is shown in YG’s song “My Nigga,” (“I said that I’mma ride for my motherfuckin' niggas/Most likely I’mma die with my finger on the trigger/I’ve been grindin outside all day with my niggas/And I ain’t goin' in unless I’m with my niggas”).


Now that you are fully aware of the racist history of the n-word, as well as the ways it is used in daily conversation by black people, let’s explore some reasons you, a white person or non-black POC, might feel like you can say it, and why they are all invalid.




1. "Why can they say it if I can’t?”

Rapper Trinidad James explored his use of the word with academic journalist Marc Lamont Hill (pictured in GIF below) in an interview on The Ben Ferguson show, a conservative special that airs on CNN.  They were called on to express their feelings about a domino effect of racist reveals from Oklahoma State University. First, a racist video of the university’s chapter of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity singing “There will never be a n****r in SAE” came out. Then, when their house mother expressed her outrage in an apology video, presumably to cover the collective asses of the frat members, a video came out of her singing the n-word several times herself.


Beauton Gilbow, the house mother in question, drunkenly sang James’ song, “All Gold Everything,” in a Vine, in which she says “n*gga” 20 times. She took the liberty of singing it several more times than James did.
Ferguson, the show’s commentator, called the n-word “divisive,” and  claimed rappers would not cease use of the word due to fears of lost “street cred.” Lamont Hill responded beautifully:


“The N-word isn’t divisive, white supremacy is divisive. Slavery was divisive. That’s the problem. And maybe, ...  it’s not white people’s position to tell black people what to say. I might see Trinidad James on the street and call him ‘my nigga.’ You know why? Because he is my nigga.


And the difference between Trinidad James and you is that Trinidad James has to deal with the same oppressive situations. … He lives in a world where police might shoot him on the street no matter how much money he has. We share a collective condition known as ‘nigga.’ White people don’t.”


via GIPHY


Lamont Hill and James share the most defining, polarizing physical feature two people can share in today’s society: their skin color, and, on a deeper level, their race. As Lamont Hill states, they both experience racism as African American men in America. They share the fear of police who shoot before asking questions when they feel “threatened” by a black male. They do not care if James is rich or poor, popular or unknown, ambitious and successful or unproductive and lazy. Two black people can see each other on the street and, regardless of if they know each other, they know that the person they see has experienced racism in a 77% white America, just like they have. This is a bond white people will never share with each other, and, thus, no word has been created exclusively for us to use this way.


This bond why they get to use the word. They have experienced the negative side of it (yes, regardless of if you claim you “don’t see color,” people still get called “n*****s” in a negative context in 2017), so they get to enjoy the positive side too. Non-black people using the n-word is similar to if you went to work, did your job alone, and let someone who does not even work for your company take half of your check home. It is not right, because they did not share the burden of earning it with you.


via GIPHY


2. “My black friend/boyfriend/girlfriend/classmate/co-worker/etc. said I could say it.”


Your loved one does not speak for every single black person on earth. If you Google search “can I, a white person, say the n-word?” you will be met with several articles from black people telling you why you should not say it. They do not have the power to give you the ability to say this word. There is a multitude of reasons why a black person would not mind if a non-black person says the n-word, be it societal conditioning, ignorance, or just a genuine lack of care, and that is their business alone. Regardless, black people are a diverse group with differing opinions. It is racist in itself to think that they are all the same.

 

via GIPHY


3. “My black friend/boyfriend/girlfriend/classmate/co-worker/etc. called me that. I was just returning the kind greeting!”


In the above article about the fraternity controversy, Marc Lamont Hill says,“When somebody says, ‘my nigga,’ that means, ‘Bro, you’re my friend.’ I will call you, ‘Ben, my nigga.’ And when I call you that you do not feel that I hate you. It’s love.”


This is an example of how the word can be used from black people to people of other races in a loving way. The Ben that he is speaking to is Ben Ferguson, a very white man. You, as the reader, may have also heard this from black friends over the years. It is a greeting of kindness from them. However, as mentioned above, you do not get to return the same greeting, because you do not have a full understanding of what it means to “be” the n-word. You are co-opting the struggle of black people that reclaimed the word, and reaping all of the benefits without any of the work.


Not to mention, perpetuating this excuse is what gives non-black people a fallback when they get caught using it in a racist context. After she spoke out about why white people cannot say the n-word, a video surfaced of popular YouTube personality Tana Mongeau calling her black friend a “f*cking n****r” with anger in her face and tone. When confronted, she filmed an apology where she claimed, “Growing up in Vegas, everybody said those words and I didn't even know that they were considered racist at all. They were in rap songs that I totally thought it just meant, like, homie or, like, friend.”


Mongeau later rescinded this in a manner similar to the above GIF, and admitted she was safeguarding her reputation. This happens way too often when people get called out for using the n-word. The claim of ignorance is one of the only positions one can take that might get them some sympathy, so it keeps getting utilized, and people keep trying to get a free pass when they should not.


4. “I didn’t mean it in a racist context,” and/or, “It’s part of the song.”


Your intent does not matter in this situation. As stated above, it is a word with an intensely racist history. Saying it as a kind greeting, a rap hook, an expression, or anything else is still using the word, and from your non-black mouth, it is still inherently offensive. “N*gga” and “n****r” mean the same thing.


5. “I’m a person of color. I experience oppression too.”


There’s no denying that. All PoC experience their own kinds of unique oppression, from race to race, or even individual to individual. However, it is not your slur. If you are reading this and you are a non-black person of color, think of how you would feel if you tried to reclaim a slur for your race to give power to your people, and, instead, it became an expression that everyone universally used. Every time you heard it coming out of a person of another race’s mouth, chances are, you or someone of your racial group would still hear it as a slur, because it is a sensitive word to you.


Regardless of whether you believe black people have been desensitized to the n-word, or should be at this point, that is not your call to make. A large amount of black people are still offended by the word. While this is not the Oppression Olympics, if you choose to enter their lane by co-opting their words, you should first worry about whether this is a topic you have the right to make judgments on.




6. “You have to understand my upbringing (referring to living in a primarily black-populated area).”


This is one of the most popular excuses. That is why it is going to get the longest explanation.


For all of my life, I have lived in a town that, in 2010, reported a 69% white and non-white Hispanic/Latinx population. The town also carries a high rate of immigrants from other backgrounds, with the majority of white immigrants being Italian- or Sicilian-American. Additionally, my high school, which sources from places like my town as well as stereotypical white suburbia, reports 59% non-white Hispanic/Latinx students, 30% black students, and 10% white students, as well as trace amounts of other races. This amounted to a 94% population of PoC.*


This means there were many unapologetically Hispanic/Latinx and black communities around at all times. My school hosted African American and Hispanic Pride events for heritage months, the chorus and band played music from multiple cultures, and English classes taught about African American and Latinx authors. Everyone there was very culturally aware.


via GIPHY
(Shane Dawson, above, with his character "Shanaynay," was a hit back then.)


Unfortunately, around the early 2010s when I was transitioning there, a sudden fad emerged - the n-word as a “cool” slang term. I first saw use of the word in my elementary/middle school. As a school for kids 14 and under, as well as a school I graduated from with precisely one black girl, no one was really speaking out against its usage. Latinx kids threw it around in jokes, as a greeting, and even in fights with each other.


Next, in high school, it became popular with the white kids in high school. Odd Future was the “edgy” thing to like for a lot of suburban white kids whose parents were not offended by them listening to bands with unclean vocals anymore. The rappers in the group made up the rap starter pack for kids who had not explored the history of the genre whatsoever. Consisting of primarily young black males that could say the n-word, their songs utilized it heavily, as did the black students that went to my school. Next, the Latinx population got to it. Then, everyone else did, and, suddenly, everyone, everywhere, was saying the n-word. Even myself.


I am not proud of it, and I do not plan on saying it ever again.


That is the problem with letting the word slip a few times from your non-black friend: it becomes normalized in the environment. This long story was all leading to that conclusion: I, the author, grew up in the kind of environment that lots of people like to say caused them to think they had rights to the n-word, and became complacent, thinking I could say it too. It made me think I should say it, because it was a status symbol to be one of the skater white kids with the most offensive sense of humor. It was “cool” to use slurs and make racist jokes. But, no matter who you are trying to impress, throwing around a slur is never funny, it is not a punchline, and it is not something that should come out of your non-black mouth.


via GIPHY


If you think that being around black people your entire life enables you to be able to throw around the n-word, you are wrong. In fact, saying that just makes it shameful that you have been around black people you love and care for your entire life that have shown you that same love and respect, and, yet, you cannot show the empathy to refrain from using slurs that have oppressed them for hundreds of years.


There are nearly 1 million words in the English language. Do not tell me you cannot think of another one to use.


That makes you unimaginative and racist.


-Angie




Disclaimer: All usages of racially charged words that are uncensored in this article were from song titles and quotes from black people.


Additionally, this piece was edited and reviewed by Southern Illinois University student and blogger, Kennedy Joseph, who also attended the high school mentioned later in the article.


This is intended to give the black community a voice in the matter, and to make sure their views are accurately represented.

*Exact location census reports are not cited to protect the author’s privacy, but they come from census.gov, as well as illinoisreportcard.com, a statistical website for Illinois schools.

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