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Why Can't We Say the N-Word?

A Simple Guide from One White Person to Another


White people really seem to be struggling with the concept that some things just aren't meant for us. We want to put our hair in cornrows, we want to paint our faces black for our Kanye West Halloween costume, and for some reason, we really want to say the n-word. We don’t understand why our black friends get to say it and we don’t. We don’t understand why we can’t sing along to it. We don’t understand why it’s so problematic. I can’t speak on behalf of black people, but from one white person to another, let me lay it out for you.

We already know that the n-word is racist. It started out as an intentionally derogatory and dehumanizing term for black people. Between 1525-1866, approximately 12.5 million Africans were brought to the Americas as part of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. To further establish slaves at the bottom of the social hierarchy, white people used the n-word to verbally discriminate against them. Since then, it has firmly remained a staple in racist, anti-black language.

Here is where many white people, and non-black people of colour, start to get confused.

Language evolves. Words that have been used to oppress people can be reclaimed by the marginalized group it once targeted, and can even become empowering. Think about female friends calling each other “bitch” or even using it to describe themselves. Now picture that on a larger and more historic scale. One reason the n-word started to evolve was its use between slaves as survivors of racial injustice. It continued to develop into a symbol of solidarity within a group of severely disenfranchised people, eventually becoming a term of endearment; something we see and hear in comedy, songs, tweets, and in casual conversation. But no matter how “woke,” or educated, or allied some of us feel we are, the n-word still exists in the vernaculars of racist white people. So even though black people have started its reclamation, it still maintains its power as a racial slur when we say it.

The line seems to gets even more blurred when it comes to hip hop and rap. Artists like Drake, Kanye West, Travis Scott, etc., write and put out music for their fans to enjoy and appreciate. You may argue that part of that is singing along… to every word. But hip hop started as an underground movement by black people, for black people. So although obviously its global popularity has grown exponentially since then, it’s worth considering that even though you enjoy it, it might not be made specifically for you. Of course you’re free to listen to it, to dance to it, to sing along to (most of) it, and to give your full support to the black artists that you love. But if you love and support them, why do you WANT to sing along to a word rooted in hate against them?

On that same note, a point that gets made a lot by non-black people is that they have black friends, black partners, or even black children. We sometimes think that if we have black people in our lives that love and respect us, or vice versa, we can’t possibly be racist. Maybe our black friends don’t say anything when we say the n-word, so we think it’s okay. Or maybe we think that if we only say it when we’re around other white people, that it’s okay then. But if you understand the weight and the history of the word, and you understand that it would be wrong to say to a black person's face, or to someone who isn’t your friend, you should also understand, or at least try to consider, that it isn’t right to say it at all.

Throughout history, the list of things white people have been allowed to do that black people couldn’t is extensive. Sitting at the front of a bus, getting a mortgage, having access to healthcare, voting, learning to read… are only scratching the surface. So when you are asked to refrain from saying one word, a word that has been used to label people, to segregate them, to hurt them, consider how little of an impact that really has on your life. Think about how fortunate you are to have so few things you can’t do based solely on your race.

Work Cited

Gates Jr., Henry Louis. “Slavery by the Numbers.” The Root,       https://www.theroot.com/slavery- by-the-numbers-1790874492. Accessed   13 November 2018

Flynn, Darin. “White people should never rap the n-word: A linguist   breaks it down.” The Conversation, https://theconversation.com/white-   people-should-never-rap-the-n-word-a- linguist-breaks-it-down-84673.   Accessed 12 November 2018

Fasehun, Osa. “Reclaiming words: the struggle to find empowerment from   pain”. Bowdoin Orient, https://bowdoinorient.com/2017/10/20/reclaiming-   words/. Accessed 14 November 2018

Stolworthy, Jacob. “History of Hip Hop: How did this underground   movement begin and when did it hit the mainstream?.” Independent,   https://www.independent.co.uk/arts- entertainment/music/news/history-   of-hip-hop-music-new-york-dj-kool-herc-google- doodle-clive-cindy-  campbell-a7887501.html. Accessed 12 November 2018

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