The debate about the N-word simply won’t go away. While many people staunchly oppose using the epithet because of it ugly racial history, some individuals continue to repeat the slur, offering trite excuses to justify their use of the word. “Black people say it, so why can’t I?” they reason. Others even insist that the N-word is a term of endearment. Yet, these arguments unravel under closer examination. Find out why the most common reasons people give for using the N-word fall short with this analysis of the slur.
Black People Use it, So Why Can’t I?
When a non-black person says the N-word, one of the top excuses given is that since black people use the slur, others should be able to as well. Talk radio host Laura Schlessinger, or Dr. Laura, made this case in August 2010 when an African-American caller complained about her white husband’s friends using the N-word in her presence.
“Black guys use it all the time,” Schlessinger told the caller. “Turn on HBO; listen to a black comic, and all you hear is ‘n—er, n—er, n—er.’ If anybody without enough melanin says it, it’s a horrible thing, but when black people say it, it’s affectionate.”
There’s no question that black entertainers use the N-word, but that doesn’t mean that the entire African-American community agrees with this practice. Many blacks object to anyone using the N-word, including fellow blacks. Take Oprah Winfrey. When rapper Jay-Z appeared on her show in September 2009, she didn’t hesitate to challenge his use of the N-word in rap songs.
“When I hear the N-word, I still think about every black man who was lynched--and the N-word was the last thing he heard,” Winfrey explained of her objection to the N-word.
Non-blacks who reason that they should be able to use the slur because African Americans do ignore the wide swath of the black community who refrain from using the word.
A Term of Endearment?
African Americans fond of saying the N-word oft argue that they do so because the black community has transformed the epithet into a term of endearment. That’s not entirely true. While blacks who use the N-word may say it as an affectionate greeting—“What’s up, my n---er”—the slur is not exclusively used as a term of endearment in the African-American community. Frequently African Americans who use the epithet specifically use it to describe black men. Using the N-word interchangeably with “black man” is problematic given that the word was used historically to strip black men of their humanity. From the Antebellum Period to Reconstruction and the Jim Crow Era, black males were not viewed as men in the United States but as “n---ers.”
Some African Americans use the N-word to outright demean fellow blacks. They couple their use of the N-word with harsh adjectives, referring to “trifling n---ers,” “no-good n---ers” or “lazy n---ers.” This use of the slur is as far away from a term of endearment as it gets.
Given the multiple uses of the N-word in African-American culture, it’s disingenuous to insist that the epithet is harmless because it’s now a term of affection. African Americans don’t use the word solely to express affection. Using the N-word to demean others remains a common practice.
The N-Word Has a Different Meaning if You Drop the “er”
When white pro skateboarder Chad Muska was arrested in July 2011 for allegedly vandalizing two Hollywood buildings, he reportedly hurled the N-word at the security guards who caught him breaking the law. At first the company that sponsors him, Element Skateboards, defended his use of the slur because he left the “er” off the end. A rep for Element told gossip website TMZ.com, “There is a major difference between n--ga and n---er, and it’s totally obvious he is not being racial at all.”
Perhaps because rappers tend to say “n—ga,” Element considers that version of the slur slang. Given that at least one of the security guards Muska aimed the N-word at is black (based on TMZ’s photos of the incident) and that Muska used the slur in a hostile manner—remarking, “F--k all these ni--as right here”—it’s difficult to believe that there were no racial undertones at play and that the skater uttered the word as a mere colloquialism. In fact, anytime a white person aims the N-word at a black person, there will automatically be racial undertones due to the epithet’s white supremacist history. When an African American is the target of a belligerent white person saying the N-word, it’s highly doubtful that he will find the experience less distressing if the “er” was left off the end of the slur. Certainly, the African Americans routinely called “n-gras” by whites in the Jim Crow South can attest to this.
Black People Like Me, So I Can Say It
If you’re a non-black person with a group of black friends, you might think that you’re so “in” with the African-American community that no one will be offended if you drop the N-word. Think again. African Americans as a whole are unlikely to react warmly to a non-black person using the N-word. Musician John Mayer found this out the hard way in 2010 when he used the epithet in a Playboy magazine interview in which he boasted that “black people love me” and remarked:
“Someone asked me the other day, ‘What does it feel like now to have a hood pass?’ And by the way, it’s sort of a contradiction in terms, because if you really had a hood pass, you could call it a n---er pass.”
In short, Mayer argues that a white guy with genuine credibility in the black community could openly use the N-word. Due to the word’s ugly racial history, the blacks who feel comfortable with whites using the N-word are likely few and far between. Considering this, it’s in no white person’s best interest to use the N-word as slang or in any other context. Mayer found this out himself after facing a public backlash when his Playboy interview appeared online.