I always find discussions about whether or not we in the black community should be using “the N-word.” The N-bomb is an often sticky point of dialogue within the black community, but the argument that has my interest today is the notion that we shouldn’t use the word because it’s confusing to white folks because if we can use it, they should be able to use it.
Whenever this discussion comes up (like when folks wanted to take the N-word out of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), quite a few thoughts hit me at the same time. On the surface, I see the possible point of confusion. The word has become so ubiquitous in our language and music that it is woven into the fabric of who we are as a community. We can call one another a nigger with a familial familiarity, term of endearment and brotherhood. Some even argue that such co-opting of the word saps it of its power, and that we have reclaimed the power of it from those who had used it against us. So since “we” use it, we can’t act shocked when we’ve sent a mixed message to the millions of white folks who buy the hip hop CDs and sing along, repeat the routines of their favorite comedians, or who want to hang out with “their boys” in that way.
Don’t get me wrong, I guess I’m old school. I think defending the use of that word only rationalizes the internalization of hatred. The word perpetuates the legacy of hate, in one powerful word encompassing the history of slave ships to Jim Crow. The word is the penultimate form of dehumanizing, the spit-in-your-face kind of assault to one’s sense of dignity and self-worth. This is particularly tricky for me as an artist when I write. I think long and hard (read: agonize) when I choose to use the word in my stories. I want to be true to my characters and how the word gets used informs those characters. On the flip side, it throws me off when I hear people reading my work and repeating those words out loud.
Don’t get me wrong, I love hearing folks read my work. I WANT folks to read my work (by the way, here’s Mark Reads King Maker Prologue Part 2), but sometimes it gives me pause. I’m putting “the word” out there, to be consumed as entertainment. Yes, I want to push the reader and make them think, but I haven’t written a treatise, I’ve written a piece of entertainment.
But then there’s the notion of who “gets” to use the word. With all the news from the Miami Dolphins football team a few weeks ago, I found it curious that Richie Incognito use of the word didn’t divide the locker room the way Riley Cooper using it did. Because there are rules of friends, private, and inclusion.
In short, you know if you’re down.
In private, my wife (who is white) has been around and adopted by family and knows that she probably gets a pass if she dropped the N-bomb … given the proper context and usage. She wisely believes that 1) she doesn’t want to ever get comfortable using the word and 2) because she doesn’t always get the “rules” of proper usage and context, that she’s going to play it safe and just never use the word.
See, white folks? It’s really not that hard. It can seem a little complicated. The word can work in art, be it movie, television, books, or music. I get it: you get all excited to repeat that David Chappelle skit you laughed so hard at or sing the words from your favorite song. And it seems like folks introducing the word into public usage to be consumed and repeated by fans makes it socially acceptable. And perhaps with your boys/girls/folks you’re down with, in a situation that’s considered private usage, you probably can. Though a simple rule of thumb is if you have to ask if it’s okay for you to use it, it’s probably not.
By the way, white folks, sorry if your feelings are hurt on this, but you don’t get a vote on this issue. I understand that some folks have entitlement issues. They get so used to their sense of privilege that they take any infringement of their “freedoms” or “rights” or them not being able to do something that others can and thus will call foul with a quickness. But it’s not a double standard, it’s life. Some groups get to say things others can’t. Be they members of the same fraternity, military branch, sports team or what have you. People not in their groups don’t get the same leeway to say what they want. Membership has its few privileges and some membership has its costs. There is an entire history and legacy to the existence of the N-word.
So, in short , we in the black community “get” to use it because we’ve “earned the right”/paid the price to use it. Yay us. To paraphrase Chris Rock, I guess I’ll wait at my mailbox to receive my N-word prize.