the n-word

After posting ‘A Nation of Trayvons’, I had several lengthy discussions with one of my best friends about racism, how far we have really come, whether the election of a black President signifies hope for race relations and the use of the n-word in present day American society.  Her viewpoint was and is if a word is hateful and bad then no one should use it, period end of story.  If only, life was that simple.  Life is, however, messy and a bit more complicated.  So is the society we live in.

Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, the daughter of fairly politically liberal parents, my sisters and I were taught that the n-word was a hateful and mean word we did not use.  If any one of us had dared to utter that word, our bottoms would likely still be sore today from the spanking we would have received only after being sent to our room to ponder why we should not use the word.  That word was not part of our vocabulary.

My personal reaction to the use of the word is as visceral as my reaction to first seeing the Confederate flag flying over the Capitol Building in Columbia, South Carolina.  I remember thumping my head on the roof of a college friend’s car when I jumped up in disbelief that in 1997 a symbol of such hatred was flying over a government building.  I love the South, its people, their hospitality, its food, its weather, and, I understand that for many Southerners, the Confederate flag symbolizes not hatred, but Southern pride.  I think, however, for the vast majority of Americans, myself included, the Confederate flag symbolizes indoctrinated racism and hatred.

Like the Confederate flag, the n-word represents hatred to me – pure unadulterated hatred.  When I hear it no matter who is saying it or their intent, I cringe at the sound of “the bad word” being uttered. It is hard not to given the vile history of the word.  One word, two syllables filled with hatred and ugliness used for centuries to control, degrade, dehumanize and keep down an entire group of people for no reason other than color of their skin.

Collectively, we like to pretend our country’s racist past and slavery was a long time ago – and on the one hand 150 years is a long time and on the other hand when you look at the connection between generations, 150 years is not that long ago.  My great grandmother, who I knew, was born roughly 125 years ago.  That’s three generations prior to mine.  My other half’s grandmother, whom we both knew and loved, was the granddaughter and great granddaughter of slaves.  For most of us, who were children of the 1960s and 1970s, we are separated from the days of slavery by 4 – 5 generations.

And it was barely 50 years ago that the Civil Rights Movement occurred and President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  America’s racist past (read overt institutionalized racism, because racism still exists today it’s just against the law) was really not that long ago.  As recently as the late 1960s, the lynching of black men was a commonplace occurrence like that hauntingly portrayed in Billie Holiday’s song ‘Strange Fruit’.

‘Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.’

The n-word, as well as a litany of other derogatory words, was spat at black men as they were being dragged to their death at the end of a lynching mob’s rope.

In a recent interview promoting her movie “The Butler,” Oprah Winfrey spoke quite emphatically about the reasons the n-word will never fall across her lips. Winfrey simply stated that she knew that was the last word some of her relatives, her ancestors heard before they were killed.

Winfrey spoke of an undeniable truth – the last word countless black men heard was the n-word. It was the final act of degradation at the hands of racist white mobs, sometimes the KKK, sometimes not.  Knowing the vicious history of the word, I cannot condone its use by anyone.  I recoil at the sound of it coming out of anyone’s vocal chords.

Today the word is overused in rap lyrics.  It has become common place in our society and has developed a new meaning – a term of endearment used largely within the black community when referencing one’s closest friends. Jay-Z has discussed at length how the use of the n-word in rap lyrics and the community has taken over ownership of the word.  His viewpoint on and justification of its use is that by taking over ownership of the word, turning it into something it was not initially intended to mean defuses the word and does more to fight racism than trying to remove it from our vernacular.  There is merit to Jay-Z’s argument.  There is strength in taking ownership of the word and stating you can no longer use that word to control or degrade me or my people. There is power in that.  Yet, I still cringe when I hear the n-word whether it is coming out of Mr. Carter’s mouth or someone else’s.

In spite of my gut reaction, I am well aware that with any word one has to look at how it is being said, by whom, and what the speaker’s intent is. When Jay-Z sings “So I ball so hard muhf*ckas wanna fine me/But first ni**as gotta find me/What’s 50 grand to a muhf*kaa like me/Can you please remind me?” or uses the n-word in conversation, I cringe but I am not offended. When a white man on my commuter train runs his mouth off about how he can’t’ stand working with the ni**as, I cringe and I am offended. (And, I am compelled to open my mouth and set him straight.)

My other half on occasion uses the n-word when talking about his boys. I accept that his blackness has earned him the right to use the word.  His mom and aunties who came of age in the South in the late 1940s and 1950s, however, scold him.  It is a generational thing and their experiences were so much different than ours; they witnessed America’s ugly history.  I still cringe.

Along with the proliferation of the n-word in our society has come the debate over when it is okay to use the n-word and who can use the word.  It’s quite simple, if you are black and use the n-word with love, then go right ahead and use the n-word.  I will still cringe.

White folks you may be married to a black person, your best friend may be black, but let me emphatically state, you do not, I do not have the right to use the n-word. And if you ever foolishly think it’s okay for you to use the n-word, the least of your concerns will likely be whether I cringed or not. I will, by the way, still cringe.

The easiest way to explain this is I have three sisters, anyone of them can call me a beyach, but let you try and they will give you a beat down. My sisters and I share a common experience of growing up together we can talk to each other like that. You cannot. Same thing applies to the use of the n-word by black people and non-black people. Black people share a common experience around the historical use of the n-word. They can use it, you cannot. It really is simple. If you are black, use the n-word if you wish. If you are not black, don’t you dare, it’s not your word. You have not earned that right on the whip-lashed, strung up, and beaten down backs of your ancestors.

It, however, is not really that simple.

Jay-Z has stated in interviews that his music, rap music helps break down racism. If white America’s children listen to Jay-Z, Kanye, Lil Wayne and idolize them, their music, sing their rhymes, want to be like them and otherwise worship these black performing artists at least some of America’s racism is going to have to dissolve.

And here lies the gray area where this all becomes not so simple. Our children think Jay-Z, Kanye, Lil Wayne and others are genius and brilliant. They sing the lyrics to their music along with them. White boys and girls are singing the lyrics to ‘Ni**as in Paris’ along with Jay-Z and Kanye: “Doctors say I’m the illest/Cause I’m suffering from realness/Got my niggas in Paris/And they going gorillas, huh!” So if white fans of these artists can sing the n-word in lyrics or shout it out at a performer’s behest at concerts, they must be able to say it, text it, tweet it as long as the intent is not racist.

Not so simple. Remember the Gwyneth Paltrow twitter controversy from last summer. Girlfriend is tight with Beyonce, Jay-Z, and Kanye. There she is backstage at the “Watch the Throne Tour” concert in Paris and the excitement of the moment gets to her head and she tweets: “Ni**as in paris for real …” GP, I cringed because you tweeted it and because you were going to face some backlash.

Image of GP's offending tweet.
Image of GP’s offending tweet.

GP, I feel you, the moment was surreal, the air was charged, your backstage Jay-Z and Kanye about to sing ‘Ni**as in Paris’ and you get caught up in the moment, throw caution and your common sense to the wind. By the time your common sense returns, it’s too late you cannot hit delete fast enough. I would have been drunk with excitement too. I would, however, have retained my common sense. The Dream tries to rescue you by tweeting that he grabbed your phone in the excitement. No one really believes that. Lesson: If you are not black you may sing the n-word in lyrics, but never ever use it in conversation. And yes, twitter is conversing.

Up to two weeks ago that was exactly how I felt. I will never utter the word. Black Americans can use the n-word freely if they choose; they’ve earned the right and now own that word.  For anyone else it is off limits.  I will still cringe if anyone uses it.

And then my 12 year old niece showed me a picture on her instagram account. She left herself signed in on my iPad, so I did what any slightly overprotective aunt would do, I scrolled through. As I scroll, I see lots of selfies, girls loving and living for basketball, softball and gymnastics, pictures of their fro yo, and cotton candy frappes from Starbucks. Nothing alarming or concerning.

Yet another picture of a cotton candy frappe from Starbucks posted by one of my niece’s young friends.  Harmless; mundane, innocent.  And there in glaring typeface, I see the conversation between two of the girls:

“You at Starbucks, my ni**a?”

“Just left.”

“I’m there now.”

“I didn’t see you. How’d I miss you, ni**a?”

I cringe.  I’m relieved that my niece was not one of the little perpetrators.  It was shocking to me that two twelve year old white girls from the working class suburban community I grew up in were so nonchalantly using the n-word.  They were seemingly unaware of its historical meaning.  I’m sure my immediate reaction had it been my niece, would’ve been to school her on the inappropriateness and history of the word.

And then, a lightbulb goes off.  I think Mr. Carter is on to something.  By replacing the meaning of the n-word, taking ownership of it, eventually the viciousness associated with it fades.  Not that we should forget or rewrite history.  We can, however, give the word a new future.  Eventually, will the n-word fall out of use, just like other words have? People once used daddio and cool cat, don’t hear those words very often anymore.  This will take generations and decades to happen.  But it could very well happen.

It seems to me that Jay-Z and other artists may have started a cultural revolution; slow moving but revolutionary and our children are at the forefront.  But until the time comes that the n-word no longer triggers strong reactions, I revert back to my earlier stance.

If you are black, use the n-word if you wish. If you are not black, although you may sing it in lyrics, don’t you dare use it in conversation, it’s not your word. You have not earned that right on the whip-lashed, strung up, and beaten down backs of your ancestors.

And for now, if you use it, I will cringe.

3 thoughts on “the n-word

  1. Very very well-written -I couldn’t stop reading ’til the end. I also live in a bi-racial family and I know beyond any shadow of a doubt that I do not share the black experience no matter how loudly or with what tears and joy I sing, “Raise Every Voice and Sing.” After all, I was never injured, I have always had white privilege. May our country and our world open our hearts.

    Liked by 1 person

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