I’m kind of amazed that I need to write this post– and I mean amazed in the horrified sense, not the good “oh my god, I just won free coffee!” sense.
This year I’ve been taking an African American history course that has challenged and confronted me with the historical lived reality of unimaginably oppressive racism. In fact, I hesitate to leave the previous sentence as it is as it falls so short of the brutality endured by millions of black people under slavery, and continued far past the Emancipation Proclamation and the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865 which formally abolished slavery in the United States.
Of course, we’ve come a long way in the progress for equality. I’m not going to shit on that. But what absolutely beguiles me is how people can freely, without any embarrassment, use the N-word or any of its derivations, when they are not of African descent.
I am not going to engage in the discussion of how the black population uses the word and has appropriated it so that it now has a very distinct meaning from its original derogatory definition. Because even if the term, for black people, means something not demeaning, that does NOT make it okay for you, who is not of African descent, to use the N- word. It is also a signifier for identity among black people themselves, and, well, you’re not black so you still don’t get to use it.
Do you remember the controversy over Jennifer Lopez’s use of the N-word in one of her songs? This was back when she had a thriving singing and acting career so maybe you don’t, or you don’t even believe that there was a time when that happened (hello early 2000s!). Well, it happened, and it was in the song “I’m Real”, which also featured and was written by Ja Rule.
People criticized her for using the N-word because she is not of African descent, but Latin. She responded by arguing that she used the term without intending harm. And I think this is what a lot of people do when they use the N-word and aren’t of African descent. They don’t intend for it to be hurtful or to use it in a derogatory way, and therefore believe that it’s okay to use.
But it’s not.
More recently, Madonna also used an alarmingly popular phrase when referring to her son. She posted a picture of her son boxing on Instagram, with “#disni**a” as part of the caption. She, like Jennifer Lopez, got a lot of criticism for this. And again, she also said it was about “intention,” explaining that it was meant as a “term of endearment.” She believed that because she had used it to convey affection, it was okay for her to use.
But it’s not okay. And it’s not okay for you to use it either.
It is not okay for you to use a word that conveyed inferiority, extreme offense, and was racially insulting to a very particular group that is not your own, and was used in such a manner for well over two centuries. It is not okay for you to use a word that was so contemptuous and defined with such hate and vitriol. I do not care if you don’t mean it in the same way. This does not give you the right to use the word in whatever derivative forms, even if it is used to impart “cool” implications.
By “cool”, I mean when people use the word usually the way Jennifer Lopez did in situating the word in a hip hop or black cultural context. You can definitely enjoy, engage, and celebrate black culture. But you do not get to use the N-word.
And here’s why:
You cannot erase the word’s history. And I’m not sure it even qualifies as history because people still use the word in a derogatory way. We are not post-racial despite what some may all too optimistically believe.
It is insulting and is a great injustice and disservice to the millions of blacks who were labelled the N-word by white people who believed black people to be naturally and inherently inferior. It was a label that tried to de-humanize an entire peoples in order to validate their subjugation of them. Not only that, but to use the word without any weighted consideration ignores the millions of blacks who also fought against the term and against its definition—they fought to defend, retain, and assert their humanity.
During the Civil Rights Movement, when many extraordinary and ordinary citizens fought for their equality with non-violent resistance, they were protesting everything the N-word stood for. When they staged sit-ins at restaurants that refused to serve “coloureds”, they would sit peacefully and respectfully until the store closed day after day until the store finally relented and de-segregated. While they sat at the restaurant chatting or reading, people who vehemently refused blacks any status equating to their own would come and spit, beat, burn cigarette butts into their necks, and hurl epithets of abuse because “n****** don’t know their place”. And still, they did not engage, and continued to patiently sit in non-violent protest, despite risk for their own personal safety.
And for me, it is this resilience and perseverance for black equality that is still being fought that invigorates me to write this post. They fought against perceived conceptions of black people as subservient and deservedly subjugated by virtue of being inherently “other,” of being the N-word categorically. They fought against the very definition of the N-word, and when you use the N-word and are not black, you are ignoring its history. You are ignoring the racially specific hate and the perseverance against such hate. And you can’t ignore this history just because you didn’t intend for it to be harmful; you don’t get a choice because this history has already happened and is still happening. And history is important. You cannot understand our present without understanding history. And if you don’t understand, you put yourself at risk of being ignorant.
Like when you use the N-word. So please stop using the N-word.