Even in 2015, some white people still can’t stop saying the word “n*gger.”
For some, it’s an unsettling reality in the current racial climate, where many Americans disavow having any racial prejudice or bias, even if their words or actions reveal otherwise. Thanks to the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, the “N-word” as an anti-black pejorative isn’t acceptable for everyday use, especially not in public spaces. But somehow, behind closed doors, away from the lights and cameras, many white and non-black people are still getting it wrong.
The latest celebrity to learn the hard way that the “N-word” is off limits is legendary wrestler Hulk Hogan. The embattled star, who’s embroiled in a lawsuit with Gawker Media over the impending release of a sex tape, must now cope with yet another controversy, after the World Wrestling Entertainment gave him the boot. It all stems from leaked audio in which Hogan allegedly refers to black people as “fucking n*ggers.” And it was enough for the WWE to remove any trace of his name or likeness online.
Hogan: “I am a racist, to a point, f*cking n*ggers. But then when it comes to nice people and sh*t, and whatever.”— Marc Lamont Hill (@marclamonthill) July 24, 2015
"I’d rather have her marry an 8-foot-tall n*gger worth a hundred million dollars! Like a basketball player!"- Hulk Hogan ladies & gents.— Shirleigh (@ShirleighShirlz) July 24, 2015
Hulk Hogan: "I guess we’re all a little racist. Fucking n*gger.”— Marc Lamont Hill (@marclamonthill) July 24, 2015
Nope. Just you, boss.
The reactions on social media, however, tell another story: Many white and non-black people still don’t understand why the “N-word” is not only offensive, but merits someone being disciplined by their employer. Sadly, it’s because some common myths and stereotypes about that word have yet to be explained clearly and contextually to people who are not black.
And when black people hear these questions, which are either the result of cluelessness, ignorance, or sheer morbid curiosity, some of us react in disbelief that the confusion persists:
1) Why can black people use the N-word, but we can’t?
Everyone is over reacting like a bitch on the whole Hulk Hogan thing— . (@Frankishg) July 24, 2015
The idea that black folks are being overly sensitive about something that’s “just a word” is a common one: A 2012 suit against AA Foundries alleged that a “top company official” used the “N-word” in the workplace—later hanging a noose in the office. Following complaints, a superintendent called the protests “B.S.” Claiming it was “no big deal,” he told employees, “You people are too sensitive.”
The word “n*gger,” however, is more than just a word. It both hurts to hear and may reopen emotional wounds caused by the pain of enduring racism on a daily basis—for generations.
For white people and non-black people of color to scold black people over their sensitivity to a violent slur is an exercise in privilege: Just because a word doesn’t harm you doesn’t mean that everyone else can so easily shake off its troubling implications.
5) “I’m a white person and someone once called me a cracker. Isn’t that just as bad as the N-word?”
Black women are being murdered by police while we're complaining about a black kid who maybe called us a cracker in 6th grade. Bye.— Olivia A. Cole is on hiatus for first time ever (@RantingOwl) July 24, 2015
Why do white people fixate so much on the word "cracker"? Like we're desperate to prove someone, somewhere, is racist against white people.— Olivia A. Cole is on hiatus for first time ever (@RantingOwl) July 24, 2015
Cracker is a pejorative, yes, but one that’s related to an imbalance of power stemming from slavery, where white slave masters would literally crack a whip, physically assaulting black slaves to keep them obedient and productive.
And as Gene Demby noted at NPR’s Code Switch, the word was even used by wealthy whites in reference to impoverished white people and European immigrants, in a similar vein to how the words “redneck” or “white trash” are used today. The word “cracker” sometimes is a matter of punching up, as an epithet for bigoted white people, but it doesn’t have the same history associated with it; unlike the “N-word,” it was never used as a tool of systemic oppression.
6) “What should I do when a rap song I like comes on, and it has the N-word?”
Why not use another word in its place, or avoid it altogether? Find a word substitute that works for you, one that still makes sense with the flow of the song. (See: “ninja.”) As another alternative, just treat the song with the “N-word” as though it’s the censored version. Skip over the word.
Whatever you do, don’t be like one young white woman in a Williamsburg karaoke bar last fall, who dared to rap a Biggie song chock-full of the offending word in a mixed crowd; she even went as far to say every “N-word” in the song with emphasis.
My friends and I stood swishing our drinks uncomfortably until she was done, opting not to interrupting her performance. But our facial expressions said it all.
7) “But people like Hulk Hogan and Paula Deen apologized. Why can’t black people accept an apology?”
I’d ask a similar question to white and other non-black people who are implicated by the denigrating use of the “N-word”: Why can’t you all apologize on behalf of your race, for the actions of one of your own?
Black people are usually called upon to be representatives of their entire race, but on the whole, white people have the privilege of only having to be accountable to themselves as individuals. When white people kill each other, it’s not called “white-on-white” crime. When white people support anti-LGBT laws, there’s no decrying “white homophobia” or “white transphobia.” When white people say racist things, it’s not often framed as a “white community” problem.
So why should one white person’s apology to those they offended be received the exact same way by everyone who is black?
Hulk Hogan another white guy caught saying the "N" word. He will apologize black ppl will forgive him. But black ppl are the violent race.— Gary Owen (@garyowencomedy) July 24, 2015
Members of the Charleston, South Carolina church where nine black people were gunned down by a white supremacist—who had a black friend—expressed their willingness to forgive him. Each person copes with the effects of racism differently—and how they individually respond is a matter of their own belief system. Their forgiveness was in line with how they practice their Christian faith.
Derrick Clifton is the Deputy Opinion Editor for the Daily Dot and a New York-based journalist and speaker, primarily covering issues of identity, culture and social justice.
Screengrab via MikeKalasnik/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)