While it should seem simple enough to tell non-Black people that they are not allowed to use the n-word, there are still people out there who need a bit of a refresh in American history and language arts. People are still, in 2022, having to google the why behind Black people being the only individuals with permission to use the n-word.
Black people are allowed to use the n-word because it was a word that was historically used against them. The use of the n-word amongst the Black community is done out of a sense of friendship, and in effect, takes power the word once held over them away, so that Black people may own the control over the word, and not the other way around.
Given the historical context behind the word, it is not mystifying that only the Black community can repurpose and use this word for their own. Yet some people still need a more in-depth explanation of why they are barred from using this one divisive and complicated word. After this article, you’ll be well versed as to why!
A Word Rooted in a History of Trauma
The N-word was used during the time in American history when slavery was allowed, encouraged, and was used readily to build up much of the economy and wealth of the Southern states. The meaning behind the n-word is derived from the Latin and Spanish words, ‘negro’, meaning ‘black.’
While its root word may have simply meant ‘black,’ the n-word was used as an ethnic slur, often used by wealthy White slave owners, to dehumanize and belittle Black people, whom they owned.
Most people with even the slightest grasp of American history and the horrors of slavery can quickly understand the meaning and context behind the n-word. It is impossible to confuse. The word was hateful, disrespectful, and meant to strip one’s humanity.
Why Black People Can Say the N-Word
Yes, the n-word is a derogatory slur historically used to belittle Black people. However, often people reclaim words to take back its power. In Black communities, when people call each other the n-word, it is done so in a way that the word itself is flipped on its head and often meant to show a brotherhood/sisterhood bond.
When the word is said between people in the Black community, it is reiterating this word’s loss of power – that it no longer owns them – literally and figuratively. Black people are allowed to say the n-word because they can. After centuries of being oppressed, they deserve to claim the word back and diminish its power. Anyone who is not Black does not have that right.
Other Communities that Have Taken Back Harmful Words
The Black community is not the only community of people who have repurposed and ‘taken back’ words once used against them. Gay men, for example, often use the ‘f-slur’ in a joking and endearing way toward one another, though historically, the F-slur is a word that would otherwise be very offensive toward LGBTQI persons. In the queer community, the more they use the word in fellowship, the less hold it has over the community.
Women can refer to one another as the B-word, and in the feminist theatrical play “The Vagina Monologues,” the C-word is said hundreds of times to reclaim a word that for centuries has been used as filth.
Reclaiming words that possess power over a marginalized group is extremely common. We see it in most communities around the world. In a smaller, more micro example, we experience it in our friend groups, in the way that your friends yield the right to your nickname, but strangers do not yield that right.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Words That Don’t Belong to Everyone
One of the best, most eloquently explained dialogs by scholar Ta-Nehisi Coates concerns words that don’t belong to everyone. In this discussion, Coates poses a series of examples about how the context of words matters not a little, but a lot. “words do not have meaning without context” – Coates.
How Context Matters
Coates gives the example that he and his wife may call each other ‘honey,’ which is appropriate in the context of their intimate relationship. However, if a stranger walking down the street calls his wife ‘honey,’ most people would agree it is inappropriate.
Why is it inappropriate? Because the context of a word matters and the relation of the word to the persons involved matters.
He goes a little further to explain that his father grew up being referred to by his mother and sibling as ‘Billy,’ but that name is exclusive to those he grew up with. Were Coates to call his father ‘Billy,’ it wouldn’t feel appropriate because Coates didn’t grow up alongside his father. Coates is his son, and therefore calls him “Dad.”
The discussion grows, Coates explaining that his wife and her best friends playfully call each other the B-word, as a term of endearment. Coates has never felt it appropriate for him to join in and call them the B-word too. Why? Because in the context of that moment, it isn’t appropriate for a man to call his wife and her best friends, the B-word. It would be shocking and offensive.
The last example Coates uses to reiterate this point home is how a White friend of his refers to his cabin as ‘The White Trash Cap.’ While it may be a funny name, and Coates’ White friend himself labeled it as such, Coates never refers to the cabin as ‘The White Trash Cap.’ Why? Because Coates is a Black man, and he wouldn’t feel it appropriate or respectful to say those words when he isn’t White.
How the Idea of Context Applies to Black People, Too
While these examples may seem obvious to point out, they are important to fully grasp the concept behind context and who gets to say which words. Because, as is Coates’ larger point, all words do not belong to everyone.
Most human beings understand these rules of verbal context and agree upon them… except when it comes to Black people and the n-word. “It is normal for groups to use derogatory words ironically. Every group does it. The question is, why is there so much hand wringing when Black people do it?” – Coates
Suddenly, it is baffling for people, especially White people, that there is a word in the English language that they are not allowed to say, but that Black people can.
Suddenly, this agreed-upon notion of context goes out the window. Why? Coates explains in such a perfect and articulate way that we must let him do the talking:
“Black people are not outside the normal rules of humanity. Why do white people have such difficulty extending things that are basic laws of human behavior, to black people? I think I know why… When you are white in this country, you are taught that everything belongs to you… the laws and the culture… they condition you this way. You have the right to do whatever you want to do, and people just must accommodate themselves to you.
Here comes this word that white people invent, and now somebody’s going to tell them how to use a word they invented. So now they feel like ‘why can’t I use it? Everybody else gets to use it. That’s racism! That’s racism against me’ (audience laughs).” – Coates
The meaning behind a word matters. The context in which the word is said matters. The history of a word matters. If a stranger walking down the street isn’t allowed to call your wife ‘honey, baby, or sweetheart,’ then why should a non-Black individual be allowed to ever say the n-word? It’s pretty simple to grasp.
Can Other POC Say the N-Word?
Many black people feel that anyone who is not black may not use the n-word. Period. It doesn’t matter that you simply aren’t white. It matters that you are not a person who racially identifies as being black.
Just because you are a person of color (POC), do not assume that your proximity to Black people and Black culture makes saying the n-word okay. You might recall the recent scandal that occurred when Gina Rodriguez (Jane the Virgin) was called out for her very casual use of the n-word.
It brought light to the issue that many Latinx individuals feel they have a right to claim the n-word as their own. The n-word was derived from the translation ‘black,’ about black slaves, and the fact that it was used in a derogatory manner to belittle and dehumanize black slaves. Some marginalized groups in proximity to black people conflate the solidarity and the division of each group’s unique experience.
Latinx persons may feel they have experienced similar traumas and historical racism. While that is true, their experience as a group is different from black people who were brought over for the specific purpose of slavery. Latinx people do not own that experience; it is not part of their larger group culture. This is why many black people feel they do not have the right to use the n-word, even if they are not white.
Additionally, it does not matter if you love black culture, if you only listen to rap music, or if you have lots of Black friends. If you aren’t black, you don’t get to say the n-word.
Why it’s Not Okay to Even Sing Along to the N-Word
We mentioned above the scandal with Gina Rodriguez and her flippant use of the n-word. To expand on this, Rodriguez had filmed herself singing along to a hip-hop song that used the n-word, and she sang right along with it with ease.
Is singing along to a song including the n-word bad? Yes. It is. Why? Because you do not need to sing along to it. You want to sing along to it. That is the difference. And if you are not Black, you don’t own the word, so it is not yours to say, even when singing along to a song.
Ta-Nehisi Coates gives yet another great explanation for why non-Black people can’t sing along to the n-word in rap songs:
“White people feel like ‘Now I must inconvenience myself and hear this song, but I can’t even sing along? When this happens, I say, they are getting a small taste of what it is like to be Black. To be Black is to exist in the world and watch people doing things that you cannot do, that you can’t just join in and do.” – Coates
So no, you shouldn’t sing along to the part in a song that uses the n-word if you are not black.
What if Someone Calls Me a Racial Slur?
Some non-black people feel they are somehow vindicated in using the n-word because a Black person called them a derogatory name associated with their race or skin color. For example, often, the argument is “they called me a cracker.”
Here’s the deal. There is no word equivalent to a white person. Being called a ‘cracker’ may not be particularly nice, but it is not a word that typically leaves a white person scarred, reminding them that their place in this world is different and potentially less valued than White people.
The evolution of the word cracker isn’t some comparison to pale looking biscuits. This word evolved from when White people were, very literally, “whip-crackers.” Yes. A person who cracks the whip on a slave. So, knowing this, it makes the word cracker even less offensive because it is a nickname for those in power who oppress others.
Calling a black person the n-word is incredibly and deeply hurtful and offensive. Why? Because this word was used to belittle and dehumanize black people in America during the time of slavery. Even when slaves were freed, the word was used to remind black people what their place would always be.
This word carries with it unmistakable amounts of historical and personal traumas. There is no word for White people that could leave the same lasting effect as calling a Black person the n-word.
So, if a black person calls you a bad name, no, you do not have the right to say the n-word in rebuttal. That doesn’t make it okay. It is never okay to call a Black person the n-word. Ever.
Why the N-Word Makes Most People Uncomfortable
The 2016 documentary about James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, was about a statement Baldwin made in a 1963 TV appearance in which he said, “I am not your (n-word).” If what Baldwin actually said was the latter statement, why title the documentary I Am Not Your Negro? Why edit the n-word out? Why censor the word?
Because the n-word makes us uncomfortable, even when the word is said in power by a Black man, it still carries with it its history, its nastiness, and its complexity. It makes people cringe, feel embarrassed, feel wounded, and even feel defensive.
Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor has an outstanding TedTalk, “Why it’s so Hard to Talk about the N-Word,” that everyone should watch. It might help you understand your own feelings and confusion around the word.
The n-word is hard to talk about because of its history. Without a giant history lesson, most of us know the truth of the word, the offense that is meant when it is said. It pricks the back of our ears and makes us sit on high alert. It is simple to think ‘words are just words,’ that they wield no power. And yet… when this word is written or spoke, it evokes emotion in every single person who hears it.
Why do you Want to Utter This Word?
Let’s get to the real issue. The issue isn’t “why can’t I say this word deeply entrenched in horrifically painful history.” The real issue is why it bothers a person so much that they aren’t allowed to say this one word.
People need to ask themselves: why would I even want to say such a word that is not mine to say? A word that hurts, not heals? A word that carries with it hundreds of years of pain. Why would you even want the right to use the n-word?
Why would someone even want the right to sing along to that word in a song? Would it add value to their life to feel they had the right to say it? Or is it simply because they don’t like that something is not theirs to have?
The Key Take Away
Words do not belong to all people because words have meaning, and the context behind their meaning is paramount to their existence. Black people can say the n-word because they have reappropriated the word to no longer hold power over them. They have the right to the word because, for centuries, it was used against them to make them feel they could be owned.
Even for someone who is Latinx or in a similar community that is adjacent to the Black community– there are consequences for saying or singing along to the n-word because it is largely deemed unacceptable by black people.
The bigger issue is why non-Black people even desire to say the n-word in the first place. Why is it such an issue to be barred from this one word? Isn’t this the more interesting, underlying question?