People often ask me about my “stance” on use of the word “nigger” or “nigga.” I grew up using the term very frequently with my black male friends. As I got older, as with sugary foods, I indulged less with “the n-word.” Because the question comes up so often, and because I am not the sole outlet for meaningful thoughts on the subject, we’ve pulled together some perspectives on the word from many people whom I admire and have worked with. This is it. Everything you need to know about how to think about the n-word. You’re welcome.
‘Awkward Black Girl’ creator Issa Rae responds to racism CNN, 24 Apr. 2012
“The internet has provided small communities for racism online and people feel free to do it. Ultimately, there should be some consequence - if you promote your racism online then there should be a consequence.
Users hide comfortably behind their computer screens and type the most obnoxiously offensive things they can think of and thirstily WAIT for an angry response; a validation of their modest efforts."
Even the main character in the series, an awkward black woman named J, uses the N-word in her thoughts and when she raps - it's her therapy, the character explains in the show.
“J uses the word in her head,” Rae said. “She’s never called anyone that face to face - it’s about her thoughts.”
Rae said there is nothing funny about hateful speech and she believes there is a difference between using words for malicious purposes and using words to make people laugh.
W. Kamau Bell
W Kamau Bell on When to Say the N-Word. The Charleston City Paper, 2 Apr. 2014.
“When you're willing to accept the consequences of using it.
That goes across all racial lines. People say, ‘Well, black people can say it’ — uh, President Obama can’t say it because he can’t take the consequences of saying it. If President Obama drops the N-bomb today and Eminem drops the N-bomb today, I think one of those stories is going to be bigger in the news. I’ve got my bets on the Obama one.”
[note from Baratunde: Kamau was right.]
“I don't use it disposably,” Bell says. “I only use it when I need to use it; I don‘t use it as an adjective or an adverb. I use it when I'm like, ‘I am about to use it.’ I have a bit right now where I have my daughter dropping an N-bomb on me, and for me, in that situation, it’s funny and charged because of how I’m using it, not just because I’m using it cavalierly. I’m not trying to rhyme anything with it.”
Now, before you get your Dockers in a wad about double standards and reverse discrimination, hear the man out. In Bell’s mind, not all words are created equal:
“Words are like knives, and some words are like a Ginsu knife or a samurai sword, where you’ve got to be really careful when you take it out of the sheath because it can cut you and everybody else. And some words are like the plastic knife in the back of your drawer, where you can use it, but it ain’t gonna hurt anybody. People act like every word is the same — ‘How come you can say it but I can't say it?’ Because I know how to use the samurai sword.” [Baratunde emphasis added]
Elon J. White
My Name is Elon James White and I Approve this Message. Tumblr, 20 Feb. 2014
“You think it’s racist if Blacks say Whites can’t say nigga. I think it’s racist that black kids can be killed because they’re scary.”
Study Finds Link Between Google Searches for ‘N-Word’ and Black Death Rate Colorlines, 28 Apr. 2015
“The study ‘Association between an Internet-based Measure of Area Racism and Black Mortality,’ led by University of Maryland epidemiology professor David H. Chae, compared geographic differences in racism across the U.S. by dividing the country using designated market areas — geographic areas defined by Nielsen Media Research representing television markets.
They overlaid those models with health data to find their link. Researchers examined death certificates and population counts among black people over 25, ‘which represent the the largest burden of mortality from chronic diseases that are likely to be influenced by social stressors stemming from racism,’ the study authors wrote.
What’s likely is areas where people are more likely to use the n-word (notably, researchers limited it to variants of the n-word ending in -er and not -a) are more likely to also be hostile social environments which create indirect and direct stressors on black people's lives. ‘Racism is a social toxin that increases susceptibility to disease and generates racial disparities in health,’ Chae said in a statement released by the University of Maryland.”
In Defense of a Loaded Word. New York Times, 23 Nov. 2013
“A separate and unequal standard for black people is always wrong. And the desire to ban the word ‘nigger’ is not anti-racism, it is finishing school. When Matt Barnes used the word ‘niggas’ he was being inappropriate. When Richie Incognito and Riley Cooper used ‘nigger,’ they were being violent and offensive. That we have trouble distinguishing the two evidences our discomfort with the great chasm between black and white America.
If you could choose one word to represent the centuries of bondage, the decades of terrorism, the long days of mass rape, the totality of white violence that birthed the black race in America, it would be ‘nigger.’
But though we were born in violence, we did not die there. That such a seemingly hateful word should return as a marker of nationhood and community confounds our very notions of power.
‘Nigger’ is different because it is attached to one of the most vibrant cultures in the Western world. And yet the culture is inextricably linked to the violence that birthed us. ‘Nigger’ is the border, the signpost that reminds us that the old crimes don’t disappear. It tells white people that, for all their guns and all their gold, there will always be places they can never go.”
“A lot of times, people focus on the word as if it is some kind of absolute rule, where we have seen that if one word is banned, people just shift to other racially coded words, like Canadian or Reggin. It is better to attack the racist intent behind the word.
For example, with the Michael Richards controversy, he was on stage openly screaming about lynching and sticking forks in people. And yet, when the controversy was reported, the only thing that was focused on was the N-word. Not the horribly racist things that were said, but just the word.
I highly doubt any word can be banned. I am not a fan of the word, but people have different ideas around language and reclamation. But what's more important to understand is that banning the word isn't going to make racism go away.”
Mychal Denzel Smith
White Millennials are products of a failed lesson in colorblindness. PBS, 26 Mar. 2015
“Armed with this impotent analysis, Millennials perpetuate false equivalencies, such as affirmative action as a form of discrimination on par with with Jim Crow segregation. And they can do so while not believing themselves racist or supportive of racism.
In a piece for The New Republic, written in response to the University of Oklahoma Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity video in which members repeatedly said the ‘N-word’ in a chant about excluding black men from their fraternity, Chloe Angyal says, ‘We need to have an understanding that we aren’t special, unique, and different, but subject to the same forces as everyone else in our sociocultural group.’
One of those forces is history, and in America that is a history of white racial supremacy as the prevailing ideological commitment. Anti-black racism has been the law of the land, manifest in policies regarding housing, employment, education, and the justice system.”
Django, the N-Word, and How We Talk About Race in 2013 Grantland, 3 Jan. 2013
“My third point of controversy going into Django: the loose use of the big boy N-word by all of the white co-stars, especially delivered from the mouths of actors you know well, such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Don Johnson. While this is of course the word that would have been used by the characters they’re portraying, by many accounts it’s still startling to hear it repeated, at such a high clip, knowing that at the end of the day it’s still Leo and Don.”
Saying the Word the NFL Doesn’t Want to Hear. Grantland, 28 Feb. 2014
“If I’m a black kid — which I once was — and I listen to Wooten, or I watch Sunday’s Outside the Lines special on the ‘n-word,’ I sit through it, take it in respectfully, and then go on my way. I care about the opinions of my elders with regard to the word. And I truthfully understand and respect the pain that people — my people — had to endure in regard to the word. But the ‘nigga’ speeches I’m getting today are just like the ones I heard when I was the target audience — the ‘Do you know your history?’
Thankfully, I’m not that far removed from being a black kid. So I have a sharp memory of being talked to about this. I remember my reactions, too. And I remember forming my own independent opinions on how to proceed.
When I was a black teen, I rarely said the word. It made me uncomfortable in most settings, because I grew up in the early stages of white kids getting ‘passes’ to say ‘nigga.’ It was an interesting time. As society seemed to be loosening its standards on the word, I wanted to use it less. In my head — and though it was 10 years ago, I can recall this internal debate as clearly as day — the idea was that my public refusal to say it might make those around me less willing to use it. Not saying the word was my 16-year-old freedom fight.”
President Obama Bums Me Out & A Postscript About the N-Word. Raquel Cepeda, 28 Feb. 2014
“I am not the N-word po-po and have tried to use the term, in a broader context (the earliest record of the word I’ve read was used as a slur against a West African slave in modern day Dominican Republic: see Open Veins of Latin America), to discuss how Latino- and Black-Americans have a (painful) shared history… Regardless, I would argue that the use of the word isn’t a re-appropriation: you would have to know the meaning and context before flipping the definition.
I’m not sure that we’ve pushed that conversation far enough yet. And anyways, no matter what position you take, if the cultural leaders we’ve put on a pedestal use it to refer to themselves then I don’t see the masses following suit. But, I digress.”
Jay Smooth on One’s Right to Use the N-Word. The Society Pages, 8 June 2012
Last week Gwenyth Paltrow tweeted a photograph of Kanye West and Jay-Z performing in France along with the text: ‘Ni**as in paris for real.’ The tweet started a conversation about her right to use the n-word, even with asterisks. Paltrow defended herself, claiming that it is the name of the song they were performing (which it is).
At Colorlines, Jay Smooth offers a characteristically entertaining and insightful analysis of the incident. What’s interesting, he observes, isn’t so much her use of the word, but her defensiveness about it. Here’s how he puts it:
“No matter how justified you feel, as soon as you start arguing about your right to use the n–, that is a sign that you have become too attached to the n–word. He calls on her to apologize and move on with her life because...The right to use that word is not a right worth fighting for.”