The n-word has been around for hundreds of years, having earned its fame in the era of slavery and Jim Crow. My family taught me of its origin. They taught that it was the sound of hatred, that it was full of a venom meaning to hurt me. They’ll call you this because you’re Black. They’ll spit this at you to make you feel less than. My grandmother was born a few years before the Civil Rights Movement kicked into high gear; I often wonder what she thinks about the word, but of what I know about her, I can imagine it’s nothing but an evil, evil thing.
I was in middle school when I began to hear it used in casual speech. My classmates–mainly the boys and the girls who were “down”–used it, threw it around like an old ball. It made me uncomfortable, and yet I thought how oddly fitting it sounded coming from them. It was like all the bad things my family told me about the n-word–at least in the cafeteria, the gym, and after school–weren’t true.
It was the same in high school, except a wider pool of people used it, namely Latinx students. They grew up with us, grew up around us, and so the word had become as big a part of their vernacular as it did for the Black students who chose to use it. I thought it was weird, but I never questioned it. They grew up with us after all.
To this day there is heated debate about who, what, when, where, why and how the n-word can be used. For general usage, I believe responses fall into 3 categories: “Everyone should be able to use it, no picking and choosing”; “Black people only”; and “The word should be erased and no one should use it at all.” Throughout the course of my college career, in which I had the time to develop my own stance and understanding of my relationship to the word, I’ve heard all 3 arguments at one point, from the usual offenders to the surprising ones.
I am of the mind that the n-word is complicated, with more history than that 6-letter combination deserves. I think of angry, wrinkled white men and women who clutch their purses and scowl at the sight of anything brown. I think of non-Black minorities who live in the same neighborhoods but forbid their sons and daughters from being with a Black partner. I also think of Black boys riding bikes in the summer, calling each other the 5-letter revamp. Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, Kendrick Lamar come to mind, too.
It was only in my last year of college did I develop the comfort to say the word. And by comfort, I mean the willingness to say it to make a point. I enjoy dark humor, politically aware humor–meaning I make a lot of jokes about the state of America’s racial sickness. I’ve engaged with it academically, casually and creatively. My feelings for it developed over time, and I imagine they’ll continue to transform as I continue through life. It’s a constant debate Black people will have with themselves and with the rest of the world.
On the topic of the rest of the world–if you are a member of another race, the word doesn’t belong in your mouth.
To this day, I think it’s a little strange that some Black people call each other n-word. I do believe that in doing so, we are stripping the word of its hurtful power. I get that, I’m for it, and if that’s a reason as to why someone says it then I have no right to tell them they’re wrong. But even if I find it a little strange, even if I think it’s reclaiming it and morphing it, this is something that we as Black people have to sort through for ourselves. There will come the moment, and the moment will keep returning, in which we have to determine if the n-word is to be said or not at all.
As to why people of other races shouldn’t say the n-word, that experience alone is reason enough. Yes, you did grow up around Black people and yes, your favorite rapper does say it. But the difference between you and your friends, your favorite hip-hop artists, is that they’re Black. I can guarantee that they have, at some point in their lives and at some varying length, have had to sit down with themselves and wonder if they were going to click yes to the n-word subscription. People of other races haven’t had to grapple with the n-word like how we do. You don’t get to put your name down on a project you did none of the work for.
Interestingly, though not surprising, the n-word is the only word that everyone fights for the right to say. People have cried reverse racism; people have said Blacks are picking and choosing; people have argued that it’s just a word and doesn’t mean anything negative these days–these arguments are unoriginal and tired. The n-word is the only word that everyone feels they deserve a piece of, and yet this discussion never comes up with other racial epithets. Because in case some of you forgot, the n-word is and will always be a racial epithet. Racial slurs targeted towards other racial groups are sworn off, and everyone understands not to say it.
For example: for a long time I didn’t know that the word “ch**k,” the racial slur targeting Asians, was a racial slur. When I said it, I was immediately corrected and educated. I felt bad about it, but I brushed my feelings aside because it ultimately made me a better person. Ever since then the word hasn’t been in my mouth and if I hear anyone else saying it I tell them what I was told: it’s a racial slur and there are more accurate ways to describe yourself.
So why isn’t the n-word treated with the same respect?
It comes down to two things. One–everyone wants to be Black until they’re Black. For some reason, Black people saying that the n-word is off limits for everyone else but us is seen as some sort of twisted “Black privilege,” if such a thing exists. We get the right to say an offensive word? We’ve hit the jackpot!
Two–no one respects us. No one respects our struggle. Everyone wants a glass of the Kool Aid and they don’t even know the flavor.
All I’m saying is be mindful and be aware that the n-word is a topic of debate that shouldn’t be up for debate. Think of it this way–if your favorite rapper can go years without saying the n-word, then you have no excuse.