Dear white friends and family: Whether it’s ni**a or the n-word, you just can’t say it (Participation)

Dear white friends and family: Whether it’s ni**a or the n-word, you just can’t say it


by James Braxton Peterson | February 21, 2013 at 4:44 PM

“Now, white people, you can’t say ni**a/Sorry gotta take it back.  Now, black people, we’re not ni**as/God made us better than that.” – Lupe Fiasco, “Audobon Ballroom,” Food &Liquor II – The Great American Rap Album, Part 1

To paraphrase Lupe Fiasco: White people, you can’t say the n-word.

If for some reason, this current “All Black Everything” moment – where gold medalists, TV hosts, presidents, pop artists, golfers, Supreme Court justices, etc. are black – if this moment has you confused or if for some reason you think that 2 Chainz or Trinidad James has authorized you to use the n-word at will, please refer to Lupe Fiasco’s “Audubon Ballroom.” He apologizes and rescinds your “right” to use the word and he does so by reminding us of our recent history: “Martin, Baldwin, Audubon Ballroom . . .”

Sadly, we have had this debate or public conversation too many times to recount here. I distinctly remember the NAACP actually burying the word – or at least they ceremoniously buried it – and my hope was that our white friends and family would take the hint. You can’t say it.

Clearly black people have reclaimed and re-purposed the word over scores of years, but not even your favorite rapper disassociates the n-word from its white supremacist history.  For a long time now, I have challenged those who criticize rappers for using the n-word in “positive” contexts to actually listen to the music.  More often than not, the deployment of the n-word in popular rap music is not done so in some utopian, “positive” vein.

The meanings of the n-word, especially when used by black artisans, are nuanced and multi-faceted.  Believe it or not, the meaning and the use of the n-word often varies by both situational context and intonation.  Sorry, but because of these complexities – we gotta take it back.

Recently, shock comic Lisa Lampanelli referred to her “beyotch” (in this case meaning: good friend) Girls star Lena Dunham, as her “ni**a” on Twitter.  You might recall that Gwyneth Paltrow was also seduced by the n-word celebrations in Kanye West and Jay-Z’s infectious “Ni**as in Paris.”  She too lost her way on Twitter.  What both of these women and these instances of white people using the n-word has in common is that each person believes that her association with black people – men in these cases – affords them the right to use the n-word by association.

While I am sure that their black friends will back them up on this (and some have), I know of no rule in the cultural history of black folk that extends the kind of racial complexity and sociolinguistic felicity required to use the n-word to folk outside of black speech communities unless they are unabashedly racist; I know of no rule that permits them to use the term frivolously and with the sociolinguistic benefits of our hard fought battle to reclaim the term itself.

And that’s where these seemingly harmless uses of the n-word by white folk, enamored with black popular culture, actually rub many black folk the wrong way.  Even if you don’t completely buy in to the deconstructed, de-fanged uses of the n-word within the black community, you have to acknowledge that these nuanced uses of the word reflect deliberate, contested attempts to reclaim (and re-purpose) one of the most hateful, offensive, and degrading terms used in the history of white supremacy and racism in this nation.

The very fact that you can use the n-word (on social media) in these ways comes from a history of struggle within the black community.  And although this linguistic struggle to use the n-word in different contextual situations within black speech communities is at best culturally complex and at worst disconnected from this nation’s history of racism, it still represents black people’s struggle.

That means, that no one rapper or no series of inter-racial relationships can in and of himself or in and of itself, permit any white person to use the word in any public way, ever.

Otherwise you simply risk the probability of being seen as a racist.

James Braxton Peterson is the Director of Africana Studies and Associate Professor of English at Lehigh University. He is also the founder of Hip Hop Scholars LLC, an association of hip-hop generation scholars dedicated to researching and developing the cultural and educational potential of hip-hop, urban and youth cultures. You can follow him on Twitter @DrJamesPeterson


4 thoughts on “Dear white friends and family: Whether it’s ni**a or the n-word, you just can’t say it (Participation)

  1. When I first read the title, my mind immediately jumped to this Louis CK clip: .

    I find the author’s main point to be an interesting one (not necessarily one that I completely agree with, but interesting nonetheless). Yes, the author does back up his point with another point that the black community is trying to reclaim the word from its violent and troubled past.

    However, my opinion is that it would be incredibly hard to disassociate that word with the meaning that they’re trying to get rid of. I believe it’ll be easier to socially discourage the use of such a word by all races (including blacks), and to let society find another word that doesn’t have such racially-charged meanings. After all, whether we like it or not and no matter how hard we try, people will still associate that word with the racial undertones that it carries.

    I do appreciate the author’s point of view though. I’m sure a lot of people agree with him, and it does spark discussions into such a socially-taboo subject.

  2. The n-word is probably the most common derogatory term used today. It makes since that we shouldn’t use it because it brings up a historical past but iowa days people use it as comfort. Im not surprised that white people are now saying that n-word, thee word tossed around in a regular conversation and everybody just gets use to saying it. When the author of this article talked about the two white women using the word by association because of the kanye and jay z “n***as in paris,” it clicked in my head that when people of different cultures and races are around the word so much and don’t even know the historical context of it, they’re probably just thinking its a regular word to say

    I just find it hard to try and get rid of the word, when they allow it so much in media. Music and entertainment is all around us and a lot of these rappers use the word so freely. I try not to say the word as best as i can but sometimes it slips out and once again that due to the social acceptance of the word in our society. When i hear these black guys call these white guys the n word, all i can do its shake my head, honestly its a shame it got to this point with that word i feel.

  3. I sort of understand the fascination that people who are not black may have with the N word. It’s like a cuss word with way more power behind it. Its history makes it extremely touchy for those it would have been used towards, and that’s understandable. But at the same time, I don’t get the need for people to say the word. I mean just because black people are using it does it really mean you have to? I don’t get it. The excuse that black people call each other the N word so that’s why use the word, is very elementary. We are not five, and just because someone else does something doesn’t mean I have to. Especially since the word coming out of a white person’s mouth has a whole different meaning. Black people who say it are just as wrong but at least we know there intentions. Racism still exists and it is very much alive and well in this world and so no matter what you meant by the word because you are not the group it is directed towards it just seems like you are using it as an excuse to express inner racism. I don’t use the word myself so I would expect that no one else would use it towards or around me either. Honestly it just boils down to the fact that it is just not appropriate, at all. I have to ask the people who aren’t black why? Because you heard it in a song or a rap? It never made sense to me. Black people say they use it to turn it on its head and take the power it has away. The white people that say it are not necessarily trying to do that. I have heard some white people say the N word in passing conversation with either, other white people and or with black people or even to or towards me (im black). And it’s funny when they get surprised and shocked when they run into black people who get offended by thier us of the word. It’s funny because I have rarely ever if not ever heard a group of black people or even a single black individual use any of the derogatory words towards white people. Even when or if white people use it most black people don’t. And why would they feel the need to? Black people don’t try and make using white derogatory terms ok so I don’t get when white people try to use black derogatory terms and wonder why people get offended. I look at it like this, its ok for me to make fun of myself and talk crap about my family but when someone else does it, it’s no longer ok.

  4. It’s hard for people to understand that some people can say something while others can’t, especially when we are pushing equality. I agree that the word is very offensive and don’t think it should be said at all but as long as people in the media are saying it you can expect that others will be. Also, I don’t understand why people are saying that they are using the word to try to reclaim it from its violent past, if this was the case then I would assume that eventually white people would be able to say the word because it would no longer have that negative meaning, but I never see that happening. I understand why it’s different when it comes from a white person but it’ll be easier to stop everyone from saying the word than it will be to just stop one race.

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