You’ve experienced that moment, haven’t you?
You know what I’m talking about. That initial moment when your friend drops the n word like it’s nothing, like it’s just another word above “friend” that you use with gusto. As if its usage doesn’t have meaning.
As an Arab American, I feel that it is easier for me to identify implicit biases and things that people say that just don’t feel right in a conversation because it’s like a go between for cultures. I do not identify as white, and I am not a Black American. However, I still do know when to detect racism and slight undertones in the differences of when and how people speak to one another depending on who they are speaking to.
It takes some consideration to know the difference between right or wrong and why something is right or wrong. As a child, you are taught the difference between what is right or wrong, but you don’t understand why. You know that if you steal a cookie from the cookie jar, you will get into trouble. As a child, it is more of a cause and effect occasion. The cause is you taking the cookie, and the effect is your punishment.
Perhaps that has lead to the popular phenomenon of people who are not black thinking that it is acceptable to say the n-word. The person is sitting in their car, listening to Drake on the radio and is singing along. All of a sudden they accidentally say the word. They look around for a reaction, having been taught the cause and effect method of understanding right from wrong. The person is usually with friends who don’t know why the word is not bad either, so this leaves everyone thinking that they can say the word because there is no punishment.
Yet, as with anything, being seen doing something right is not what makes something right, and this logic applies the other way around. Something is wrong because it is wrong and something that is right is right because it is right, in the simplest form.
People see the n-word as a word that has been tabooed by society without an understanding of the word. They say that they would never say the word to a Black American, they say that they are colorblind, they say that they are just using the word for fun. Because that is all the word is to them: fun. They see the word as a challenge to society, as a way to feel pleasure at their subtle rebellion. Yet, most of all what they say is, “Black people can say the word. If nobody is allowed to say the word, why are they allowed to say it?” Just as how children understand right from wrong from cause and effect, people who demand the right to say the n-word revert to the inquisitive nature of children wondering how things bypass the cause and effect system they have attributed their understanding of ethics to. Yet, in actuality what they achieve is theft.
People who want to use the n-word merely for the purpose of having fun and because they enjoy the gusto of the word achieve their pleasure at supposed rebellion at society at the expense of the safety of the bodies of others. They ignore the history of a word that dehumanized an American people to the mere color of their skin instead of as humans. Yet, the solution to an integrated society is not being “colorblind,” we can never forget the actions that have been so incorporated into the fabric of society that the same words are used as the same dehumanizing terms. Moreover, these people who say the n-word steal the word from Black Americans. The word had been created as a derivation from the Spanish word for black, Negro, as a way to degrade these Black Slaves in America, as if creating a new species so that slavers did not have to think about the troubling idea that they and the slaves whose bodies they were in control of were both human, an idea that didn’t settle well with them.
In Lupe Fiasco’s song, Audabon Ballroom, he repeats the chorus with enthusiasm:
While it would take some understanding to realize that Fiasco is not taking a Baldwinian approach and denouncing his association with the word entirely (although he does go back and realizes his song had a deeper meaning than he originally intended when reading James Baldwin one day and seeing how Baldwin did not identify in that fashion for the reason he did not want to continue the legacy of degradation by the hands of slavers centuries later), Fiasco acknowledges the common trend in his chorus throughout his song: White people love to say the n word.
When Black Americans say the n-word, they are seen as “ghetto,” as different, as less educated as anything insulting that you can possibly imagine. Yet the argument is still made: “why can’t we say it too?”. When White Americans say the n-word, they are given a side eye, but nothing more is said of their personalities. You do not infer anything about their temperament or education as is done with Black Americans.
This double standard tends to steal the n-word away from Black Americans, some who tend to try to take back the term and have pride in their effort to reclaim their bodies from a society that has disenfranchised them before and long after slavery had been abolished, and give it to White Americans.
If you are not Black, you are not struggling with the concept to reclaim or even create your own identity in this society that has created the identity of “black” in the first place. Therefore, the philosophical debate of what to do with the n-word is not your debate to have. To use the word is to steal the word and revert it to its roots, to use the word is to further endanger the bodies of Black Americans.
And as a general rule of life: if something that someone says sounds off to you, chances are you are probably feeling so for a reason that needs some more self-inflection to understand why or else you’ll make the same mistake as those who decide to rebel against their inner moral compass because they don’t understand why.