Can I use the ‘N-word’?

We hear it in songs, in conversation, from a host of different people. Some use it as a slur, some use it in their day to day life. But the important factor is that the n-word is so ingrained in modern culture and language, it’s hard to get away from it.

However, is this even an issue? Personally, do you consciously think about your use or non-use of the word? For many people, especially in Asia, they don’t even think about it twice – rappers use it in songs, twitter uses it in memes, and language shouldn’t be seen as restrictive.

But in reality, it is so much deeper than that. The origins of the n-word point to a painful past and racist present. And language isn’t absolved of its history and connotations. Bottom line: if you’re not black, then you have no business using the n-word.

A Brief History

Let’s go back to the conception of the word. It stems from the racial slur ‘n***er’, which was derived in the 18th Century from the Spanish word, ‘negro’. It was used for hundreds of years to oppress Black people, especially to dehumanise those during slavery and later during segregation.

It was the last thing many Black men and women heard before they were lynched. Up until today it is still being used as a vile slur that ignorant racists spit when attacking black people–think of the epidemic of police brutality in countries like America. Not only that, but this word has contributed to the racist caricature of black people, further perpetuating hate and systematic oppression in the Jim Crow era. It’s easy to think of this history as far away, but racial degradation like this was within the last 100 years.

An example of an extremely racist advert from the Jim Crow era (1935). Source:
https://faculty.ithaca.edu/mismith/gallery/5777/

But surely people don’t mean it like that now? It’s okay to use among friends?

Nope. Still no.

There has, in fact, been a semantic shift with the use of the word since the 80’s, with more and more people using it to refer to friends as a term of endearment.  It was popularised in the music scene, more specifically mobilised through hip-hop and rap. Now, it can be argued that the widespread use of it is a way of reclaiming and de-weaponising the word, and it has weaved its way into everyday language.

But what about songs?

See, this is where things start to get hazy, because everything is about intent, so is it acceptable to use the n-word in songs so long as there’s no bad intentions? Why do artists use this word if they don’t want other people to repeat it?

On one hand, there is the thought that artists have a responsibility for the language they use. Therefore, if a singer or rapper chooses to use the n-word then it should technically be acceptable for anyone to say – in the context of singing the song – because it’s part of the lyrics. Why should people censor themselves whilst trying to enjoy music?

Hip-hop, Trap, Grime, Rap – all of these genres are heavily influenced by black culture and black artists, so censoring certain words, or only allowing certain people to enjoy the genre, just pushes a sense of exclusivity which essentially goes against the main principle of music. People should surely enjoy whatever music they want to?

In the same vein, some people believe that nobody should use the n-word. If it brings up so many painful thoughts, then it shouldn’t be allowed to be used at all. Artists should stop using it in songs, everyone should remove it from their vocabulary. It’s reductive regardless of who uses it. This thought process works with the same logic as above – an all-or-nothing approach – so if some people use it, then everyone should be able to use it, but if some people cannot say it, then nobody should.

However, this whole debate stems from the idea of proximity to black culture – listening to music by black artists using the n-word, and the appropriateness of singing along to the word or not. Take Gina Rodriguez for example, who posted a video on her Instagram story, while lipsyncing to the Fugees but incidentally didn’t skip over the n-word. Her claims were that she grew up listening to the band and its music. But the point is that it isn’t hard to unlearn, even if you’ve grown up using it, your black friends are okay with you using it. I mean, if Eminem, arguably the one white man who could get a free pass because of how big he is in the rap scene, avoids it then what does it mean for everyone else?

However, my personal standpoint is that it isn’t my place to dictate whether all people should use it or not. I just know that as a non-black person of colour, I will not use the n-word. It was never created with me in mind, from when it was a disgusting racial slur, to the reclamation of it. And in all honesty, it isn’t that hard to program yourself to skip over the word in songs. If you feel outraged that you can’t say it, then I suggest you have a look at yourself and ask why you feel the need to say it so bad.

It’s. Not. Your. Word.

Ultimately though, there really is no way to regulate the use of the n-word. People will say it regardless of social acceptance or not. But with education and raising awareness of the fact that it is actually discriminatory and offensive, I hope that people reconsider their potential use. It is an issue that spans beyond ‘political correctness’ – which is not a dirty word, and you’re not actually cool for actively choosing language that hurts groups in society.

So here’s a simple question you can ask yourself if you’re confused whether you can say the n-word: am I black? If yes, then feel free, go ahead. If no, then you most definitely cannot. Not even in songs, not even if you use an ‘-a’ instead of a hard ‘-er’. Not even if you have black friends. No, you do not get a free pass even if you’re a person of colour, just because you’ve been discriminated against too or your proximity to black culture – just stop.

Written by Habeeba Shaikh

Stay opinionated, stay unbothered.

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