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Sunday, September 24, 2023

Smith: Using the N-word

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It is easy to find daily examples of white people complaining that they can’t use the so-called “N-word.” I’m not referring to overt racists who take great pleasure in uttering that particular epithet. Neither am I referring to people — famous or unknown — who get caught saying the word and then offer the obligatory faux apology: “I’m sorry if anyone was offended …” (Using passive voice is nearly obligatory.)

I’m referring to people who feel compelled to raise this issue while in social settings or in online discussions. They express, in varying degrees of consternation, how “unfair” it is that Black people “get to use” that word, but “white people are called ‘racist’ when we do.” They will usually refer to rappers using that word liberally in their songs and then offer the accusation that Black people are “hypocrites” or even are “the real racists.”

I find this phenomenon to be endlessly fascinating from a psychological perspective. One has to wonder about the mental and emotional state of people who lament that they lack the social cover to make offensive remarks without receiving backlash. The fact that so many (though obviously not all) white people get upset regarding the repercussions of using the “N-word” speaks to the eroding of white privilege. While the loss of that privilege is welcome and necessary for a healthy democracy, I believe that it often does result in a genuinely difficult shift in mindset.

At the same time, I will offer a necessary counterpoint. Specifically, I have not encountered this phenomenon vis-à-vis other groups of people who historically have enjoyed the upper hand in an unequal power relationship.

For example, as a man I can’t imagine being upset that I’m prohibited from using the “B-word” when referring to women, whereas women are able to do so (playfully or otherwise) if they so choose. Indeed, I haven’t come across any men who have expressed disappointment at not being afforded the latitude that women have in using that word. If I ever do, I’ll quickly admonish them to get over it.

Similarly, as a heterosexual man, I’ve never been envious of the fact that gay men have license to call each other names that have historically been used to degrade and dehumanize them. I can only assume that they have much the same feeling as do Black folks who call each other the N-word. In other words, gay men are free to engage in linguistic jujitsu to disarm words that originated as slurs against them.

Further, while it’s important to avoid engaging in false equivalency, I will hasten to add that straight white men have the right to use among themselves words that are intended to mock or degrade them. And, again, I haven’t come across women or people of color who are upset about that. We simply do not care.

It should not be difficult to understand, or to accept, that members of groups that have been discriminated against for hundreds or thousands of years get to decide what is appropriate when they refer to themselves or to each other.

To be clear, not all African Americans use the N-word. Indeed, for a variety of reasons, many are assertively against its use — by anyone. In particular, they argue that Black folks should not use a word that is so closely associated with slavery, domestic terrorism, segregation and other forms of racial discrimination and violence. They believe that the use of that word among us is tantamount to psychological acceptance of second-class citizenship and even reduced humanity.

While I am very sympathetic to this view, it seems to me that the more we push to have that word essentially removed from the English language, the more we unintentionally bolster racists who understand how hurtful it can be. Without a counterbalance (albeit a problematic one), we surrender all our power to people who will continue to use that word as a blunt instrument against us.

To employ Black vernacular speech to this subject, if a white person “feels some kind of way” about being barred from using this word, he/she really needs to be deeply introspective and ask why that is the case. They should especially be on guard for reflexively responding “I’m not a racist” when defending obviously racist behavior. Being envious of Black folks’ ability to linguistically, culturally, and psychologically remix bigotry in a way that empowers us is not a sign of solidarity; it is a sign of sickness.

Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com.

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