I remember the first time someone called me a n***er. I was about 14 years old, walking alone down the street in our small southern California suburb. We were one of two black families who lived on our block. It was after dark, but I didn't feel unsafe. As I was walking down the street, I heard a car approaching behind me. It was driving pretty fast but I didn’t think much of it until it pulled up beside me. Someone yelled “Nigger!” very loudly before the car sped off. It was full of 20-somethings out for a dumb, 20-something joyride. I heard them laughing as they sped away. I kept walking as if nothing had happened.
This week, The Washington Post released a series of video interviews on the word n***er with the ostensible goal of exploring “the history of the word, its evolution and its place in American vernacular today.” While watching them, I was reminded of my experience that night when I was 14. It was one of the most disturbing episodes of my entire life. Do we really still need to talk about why the word is so harmful and inappropriate? I guess so!
Throughout the Post's interviews, the primary question being asked is basically: “Who gets to use the word and why?” If Kanye West tells his white fans that they can say the word during one of his concerts, what’s to stop them from using that pass to justify saying it elsewhere? If black football players get to use the word on the field, why can’t everyone else? It’s used so pervasively in pop culture and music, it’s difficult to argue that the word still has the same meaning that it had 60 years ago. But the more compelling question is: Why do so many people feel the need to use the word n***er in the first place?
It’s used so pervasively in pop culture and music, it’s difficult to argue that the word still has the same meaning that it had 60 years ago.
When blacks started to use n***a—in jokes, as insults, or as a term of endearment—it was mostly used in private, short for "we are in this together." Today the word is used indiscriminately and out of habit. We are ambivalent about its social impact and historical roots. We don't consider the fact that our conversations are no longer happening in private. We pretend the word has no real meaning at all—until of course, all of a sudden, it does.
Decades ago Lenny Bruce tried to make the case that if anyone can say it, no one would care. The problem with that? Anyone can say it. White people say it all the time. Maybe not out loud, but, like, does that really make a difference? I've felt it—like an antennae always turned on to the low, quiet, terrestrial frequency that picks up the ongoing hum of tension—a white person's deep desire to use the word, unsheathe it like a dagger. It's the same frequency every black person in America has been dialed into since the day we realized we were different. You've probably used it on YouTube pages and in comment sections. And why not? Black people do it. I Am N***er (and So Can You!), right? No.
As the Post’s research shows, people have different opinions about the word's usage, and who can and can’t say it. No one should use it, and it’s disturbing to me that we still have to make arguments about why that is. We will never be able to untether it from its awful history, and shouldn’t try to pretend that that history doesn’t exist. That’s why, at 14, I just kept walking. I was upset, but I can't say that I was surprised. We haven't found a way to truly confront racism and accept it for what it is today: a deep-seated, oftentimes repressed feeling that is motivated by oppression, resentment, anger, power, and guilt. We don't see bodies hanging from trees anymore, but that doesn't mean we've solved the problem. We just keep coming up with new, clever ways to hide it—like electing a black president, for example.
My favorite quote from the Post's project was said by Denyce Graves, a famous opera singer. “The shackles have been taken off the ankles and wrapped around the mind,” she tells her husband. It’s something she learned from her mother, and if there is one reason why some people think the word n***er is less significant today than it was several decades ago, I think this is it. Racism today is not always overt, but it's still being used to justify bigotry, discrimination, and injustice. The people who are willing to believe that the word n***er can be detached from its dark past are not only foolish, they are also enabling racist jerks like the ones who screamed out the car window (and the ones who will inevitably post racist statements in the comments section of this article.)
We don't see bodies hanging from trees anymore, but that doesn't mean we've solved the problem. We just keep coming up with new ways to hide it.
I kept walking that night because I didn’t have a choice. My blackness isn’t something I can ignore or deny—I don’t want to. It’s something a white person will never experience.
Oh, and by the way, semantic inversion, a fancy way to describe taking a word and reappropriating it as a term of endearment, isn’t working. I’m not saying that this is YG’s fault—I work at a place where we listen to rap music all of the time and I never bat an eye—but we should all take a minute to think before we start singing along, before we just keep walking down the street like nothing has happened.
“If there is still a meaningful n-word debate left to have, it is over context, ownership and the degree to which it should be tethered to its awful history,” the Post concludes. I disagree. There’s no debate. The more we use n***er, the more we devote time trying to debate whether or not it still has power, the more confusing and painful it will be for kids to understand these issues when they are forced to encounter them. One way or another, it will happen. Let’s not make things more difficult than they already are.