With black culture dominating the music industry, television and nearly every aspect of our lives, surely, the old debate over the n-word has made its way into the topic of discussion.
More often than not, my experiences begin with me correcting my non-black friend after they sing along to a rap song, and end with them asking something along the lines of, “but why can’t I use it? It’s just a song.”
The question shouldn’t be why can’t you use it. The question is why would you want to use it?
Regardless, I’ve always struggled with consistently explaining to my white friends why they are not, under any circumstances, allowed to use the word.
Whenever I encounter such a situation, I look to two of the best modern day intellectuals.
Academic and political commentator, Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, explained his position on CNN by using Trinidad James an example.
“He was born into a world where anti-black racism prevails…where police might shoot him onto the street no matter how much money he has. I can call him my ni**a, because he is my ni**a. We share a collective condition known as ‘ni**a,’” said Hill. In this way, Hill suggests that usage of the n-word is contingent upon specific experience that others outside of this racial group can’t relate to. It’s a term that signifies a kinship, an exclusive relationship.
One of the best explanations of the words exclusivity to black people was given by writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates first notes that it is normal within culture for some people or groups to use words that others can’t. For example, Coates mentions that his wife calls him “honey.” For anyone outside of their relationship to call him the same would be out of place. Coates uses a similar example to explain how back home his father’s friends would refer to him as “Billy.” He points out that for him to use this nickname for his dad would also be out of place.
This is because the relationship between his dad and his friends is not the same relationship as his dad and himself.
Coates also mentioned how his wife and her girlfriends often refer to each other using the b-word. Now of course, Coates knows better than to use the word, and more importantly, has no desire to. Similarly, as young women use the word amongst each other, men know the consequences that could arise by attempting to join in.
Coates adds, “The question one must ask is why so many white people have difficulty extending things that are basic laws of how human beings interact to black people.”
His answer suggests that being white in this country also comes equipped with a sense of entitlement. Including, entitlement that leads them to believe that everything belongs to them. Not due to physical appearance, but rather due to the fact that laws and culture prescribe them to this sense of entitlement.
Then they encounter this word that they’re told not to use. Rather than abide to the common social laws they do for other groups of people, they jump up in arms.
Coates explains it best, “So here comes this word that you feel like you invented,” Coates said. “And now somebody will tell you how to use the word that you invented. ‘Why can’t I use it? Everyone else gets to use it. You know what? That’s racism that I don’t get to use it. You know, that’s racist against me. You know, I have to inconvenience myself and hear this song and I can’t sing along. How come I can’t sing along?’”
Ultimately, Coates ends with one final point that white people could benefit from thinking about, “The experience of being a hip-hop fan and not being able to use the word ‘ni**a’ is actually very, very insightful. It will give you just a little peek into the world of what it means to be black. Because to be black is to walk through the world and watch people doing things that you cannot do, that you can’t join in and do. So I think there’s actually a lot to be learned from refraining.”