7 questions black people are tired of hearing about the ‘N-word’

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.

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?

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Dating back to slavery, the word “n*gger” has been used by white people, as a dominant social class, to keep black people in their place of relative servitude, segregation, and squalor. Slavery is indeed over, and so is legal segregation, but the ideology and thoughts behind that word haven’t gone away—it’s still an indicator that white and non-black people feel that black lives are inferior and worthless.

So why, then, would a black person ever use the word? Good question. Recently, President Obama, a black man, used the word “n*gger” to make a point about why racism isn’t just a matter of individual prejudice but the way these biases translate into official policy—how major institutions are structured. Racism is a much deeper issue, and using the word “n*gger” is a small, minimal step (albeit important) in helping to break down age-old bias.

African-Americans sometimes use the word amongst themselves as a means of reclaiming it—in the same way that how “queer” has been taken back by LGBT folks and the word “bitch” has been reclaimed by women and femme-identified people. Personal preferences about the “N-word” vary widely amongst black people, but that’s perfectly fine. After all, we’re the affected group, and we should have the final say.

2) “My black friend told me I could say the N-word, so it’s OK, right?”

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It’s probably not a good idea to assume that the way one black person says you can treat them means you treat everyone else the same way. Keep in mind that each black person has a different attitude about the word “n*gger,” given its troubling history, and many of them will not be comfortable hearing a white or non-black person of color ever say it, in any circumstance. As an exercise of empathy and cross-cultural understanding, make an effort to learn about and respect how the black people you encounter may feel about the “N-word.”

And, as a general rule, just avoid the word whenever possible, especially in personal usage.

3) “I like using the N-word—what about my freedom of speech?”

Although the Constitution may enshrine freedom of speech, that doesn’t mean your words don’t have consequences. If you call your boss an a-hole and trash your employer on social media and they get wind of it, don’t be surprised if you get fired on the spot. Freedom of speech has nothing to do with it in that case—it’s a matter of professional courtesy and respect.

With the word “n*gger,” understand that white and non-black people who choose to say—despite the word’s offensive nature—are prioritizing their entitlement to a slur over how it has historically caused both spiritual and physical harm to black people. 

After all, it’s a word many black ancestors in America had to hear while their relatives were sold off on auction blocks, while they were being raped by slave masters and mistresses, and while they were being beaten into compliance with forced labor. Is that a legacy, decades later, that any non-black person would ever want to associate themselves with—even in the name of free speech?

4) “If it’s just a word, then why can’t black people stop being so sensitive about it?”

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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?”

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?

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.

However, as Jamilah Lemieux noted at the Nation, black people, even dating back to slavery, have been always expected to forgive and forget white supremacy, white privilege, and racism—to no avail.

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)

Derrick Clifton

Derrick Clifton

Derrick Clifton is an identity and culture reporter and columnist. His work has appeared on NBC News, the Guardian, Vox, the Root, Quartz, MSNBC, HLN, and Mic. He is the communications manager for ProPublica Illinois.