Please Stop Using the N-Word: Why it’s not okay if you’re not black

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.

  1. *ROUND OF APPLAUSE* I love how your argument is historically based on why the N word should not be used by non-African/-Americans. A for articulation!!!!!

  2. NikkiHikari said:

    For me, as a black person (African American if you please), I don’t think anyone should use the word at all. Words shouldn’t have this much power, but this on really does. I always encourage my friends who aren’t black to not be encourage by the black people who do use this word. The thing that gets me is how a lot of non-blacks used to used this word against blacks… and now they want to use it with blacks??? No. That makes no sense to me. It also amazes me how the n-word is the only racial slur that people want to take out of its context to mean “buddies”. I’m certain if I used any other racial slur to a person of whichever race, it wouldn’t feel pretty, so why would using the n-word EVER be okay? I don’t understand why some people who aren’t black want to use the word so badly.

    This was great though. Good job! 🙂

    • Yes, I totally agree that we don’t use other racial slurs to mean “buddies”…. I would be horribly offended if someone tried to use “Japs” or “Nips” in place of “pal”. But this is also because pretty much no one uses it that way, including Japanese people. The N-word is so much more complex because it’s history is also longer and because some black people DO use it to mean it that way, and others just emulate it because they want to seem cool or fit in or any number of reasons. This doesn’t excuse them, of course, because the onus for what you say should be on the person saying it– not the person they’re copying.

      In terms of who gets to say it, I don’t know where I stand on how African Americans use it themselves so I’m choosing to not talk about something I am definitive on. I’d rather focus on what I do know, which is that if you’re not black, you just shouldn’t say it. Simple as that. Thanks again for you feedback!

  3. Amuse, how can the reasons you give for why non-Blacks can’t say nigga not apply to Black people? I don’t understand how you give the reasons you gave, and have the convictions you do based on history, but then say “oh but it is okay for Blacks to say it”. Aren’t all the reasons you gave reasons that no one should say it (and I ask that as someone who regularly says it)?

    • I don’t mean to condone or condemn the way black people use it. I tried to explicitly say that I’m not going to go into that question, and this is because I’m unsure how I feel about it. I’m not trying to say it’s okay or not okay because I understand the arguments for both sides… But I don’t have a firm position either way. For me, I just know that it’s not okay for people who aren’t black to say it so that’s what I wanted this post to be about, largely because people (who aren’t black) keep saying “dis n****” and it really bothered me. Thanks for your comments!

      • Thanks for your reply

  4. Reblogged this on Jenna Is Me and commented:
    I agree with your concerns about how freely the word is being used today, and how a lot of people seem to think it’s no big deal to call someone a nigger. But i feel that i need to point a few things out!
    For one, it’s ok to say nigger if you’re talking about the word. I mean.. We’re all adult here. We all know what word you mean, so why not just say it if you’re gonna talk about it.
    Second of all, i take issue with you saying that they, in specific, are of African descent. We’re all African at the end of the day! That’s the message you should be sharing. That we all come from the same place, and that we’re alike. Maybe that’s not that attitude you had, or what you were going for, but it rubbed me the wrong way when you typed it.
    Lastly, i would go a step further and say that no one should use the word so freely. To me, the term has been so tarnished by history, that i think it would be best if no one called anyone a nigger. I know you mentioned that you thought it is ok for “them” (I really hate lumping a group of people together just because of their skin color, but i honestly don’t know how else to say it here) to use it. So we’re just gonna have to disagree on this point.

    • Hey Jenna,
      I didn’t explicitly say it because I thought if I did, I’d get the inevitable comment about being a hypocrite. Also, I was worried about what kind of traffic I’d attract on to the site if I explicitly used it. As for everyone being African, then I’d be worried that everyone thinks that they can use the word! As for the last point, I just don’t have a firm opinion on whether black people should or shouldn’t use the word because I understand both sides to the argument. I didn’t want to come across saying that it’s okay or not okay for them to use the word, but I guess it did. I just know that it’s not okay for people who are visibly identifiable as non-black shouldn’t use the word, and that was the point I was trying to make in the article. Thanks for your thoughtful comments!

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