Thought Catalog

The “N Word” Police: Who Can Say N**ga?

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Flickr / THOR
Flickr /THOR

Have you ever noticed who discusses the “N word” the most? White people. Which of course is unsurprising. White people, in case you haven’t noticed, love to take the driver’s seat in conversations where it may be in their best interest to just take a back seat. When Asians are talking about the word “Oriental,” you know what I do? I shut up and listen. When I learned the history of the word “Hispanic,” and some of my Latino/a friends counseled me that “Latino/a” was probably safer altogether to refer to the group, you know what I did? I stopped using the word, “Hispanic” altogether to refer to the group.

It’s really easy, in my experience, to simply call people what they want to be called. Or ask people what they think about labels that are used on their group, and take it from there. I don’t often care who, what, why it’s offensive and bla bla bla. I’m not in the business of yelling, “FREEDOM OF SPEECH!” when life is so much more enjoyable when you can ask sincere questions about labels, naming, groups, identity, etc., and proceed from there. Granted, you can never please everyone but you can try to ask people what they wish to be called – individuals and groups alike.

Because hip-hop and urban culture made it cool to say the word, “Nigga,” White people have been crying for decades, “Why isn’t it okay for me to say the word?” This was of course only in recent decades because prior to that, “NIGGER” was in full force as derogatory talk that was used to rhetorically dehumanize. Sometimes, it still is. And then when Black people “took back the word” as a term of endearment and through music in particular, in the perception of White people, it became “cool” and “edgy.” Because in those brilliant words of Paul Mooney, “Everyone wants to be Black, but no one really wants to be Black.” (You either get it or you don’t.)

Not being a Black American but a Black African who though Nigerian, was partially raised in Botswana, I didn’t grow up with the word being thrown around. In fact, because Botswana borders South Africa and the word that often parallels “Nigger” for Black South Africans is “Kaffir” – which no Black South Africans as far as I know, ever plan to take as a term of endearment – I never quite understood how the “N word” was so quickly removed from it’s historical context. Of course words change and histories are different and they create a present that’s different. So let’s get back to the USA.

I have a question: Why do (many) White people want to say “Nigga” so badly? Okay, I suppose a better question is: Why do (many) White people want it to become acceptable to everyone, that they use the word “Nigga?” Because let’s be real, Black people know *many* White people scream that shit like it’s a war cry when (they think) we’re not around. Not only have I experienced that firsthand, when people lose their senses in a weak moment – usually while under the influence of liquor. But if you don’t believe me, just ask one of your Black friends who “passes” for White about the front-row racist conversations *some* White people have about Black people – and use that word freely. As far as the word is concerned, totally and completely removing it from it’s historical context seems impossible in a society where institutional racism still persists and therefore the cultural memory of the word is still present. And perhaps that is why the body of the speaker will always matter, especially when it comes to “in-group,” “out-group” labels and conversations.

But who made me the “N Word” police? Nobody, that’s who. And so the question remains: Who gets to say the N word? Last time I checked, saying what you want is a God-given right. What isn’t a God-given right however, is going scott-free once those words have left your mouth. Personally, my White friends know I am not their one Black friend “who doesn’t care.” That being said, I urge White people to take the humorous cues from Chris Rock when he said the answer to the question, “Can White people say the word, Nigga?” is “Not really.” “You have to ask your Nigga consulate, talk to your Nigga representative, and they will tell you the Nigga rules where you are at that particular time.” Sound advice. And for the record, I think it’s safe to say those rules apply to Asians, Latinos and other Brown people too.

Unless of course a Dre song is playing. For the love of the NWA, please just say the word. Well, that’s my rule, courtesy of Chris Rock. And now, here’s your #WindbackWednesday (yes, that’s a thing) funny video, explaining this subject matter better than I can, from Chris Rock himself. And indeed as the saying goes, “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.” [tc-mark.]

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