The Motley News

Who Can Say the N-word?


Warning: This issue is complicated.

First, I’d like to tell you a story about the N-word and my minor experience with it, last night. I was with a group of white women having coffee, I’ve qualified the race of the women for a reason. (As the only black woman, you can imagine what spot this kind of topic puts me in.)

One of the women, we’ll call her Kristy, says that she walked past a group of black youths at her local university, when she heard them say: “N-word this and N-word that.” She says that she stopped abruptly and interrupted the young men, telling them, “You guys shouldn’t say that.” To which they replied: “We can say it.You just can’t say it.” Kristy maintained that if it’s such a terrible word, NO ONE should say it.

I don’t know what she got from the interaction. She didn’t say if the young men took her unsolicited advice or not, but she did tell the group: “I don’t understand it. Why are black people allowed to say that word and we’re not?”

I expected the question. What I didn’t count on, was Kristy’s whiny petulant tone. What it sounded like was: “It’s not fair! I want to say the N-word too!”

I cut her off abruptly and told her that we couldn’t have that debate tonight. I said that I didn’t think we’d come up with any consensus on a word so steeped in history. This would involve me having to school the entire table on race relations and I wasn’t up for the task. It’s not every night that I can be Brother Cornell West and create teachable moments. (Although, I can imagine what that would sound like: “What Sister Kristy means by that is. . .”)
I had a whole range of emotions associated with this topic.

  • As a woman of color, I feel pretty uncomfortable saying the word at all. I don’t like using any racially charged descriptions for groups of people. My white husband and I came to the agreement that he would never say the N-word and I would never say “Mick” or “Gyppo” to describe his Irish and Gypsy lineage (I’m not apart of those oppressed groups, so I can’t attest to all off the strife associated with those names). We have that commonsense understanding.
  • That being said, I’m of the school that thinks it’s okay for blacks to re-appropriate the word. Just as the homosexual community might want to use the F-word or D-word. 
  • Something I can’t over is, some whites and they’re fascination with saying the word. I don’t understand what the big deal is. What do you feel like you’re missing out on? Being apart of a oppressed people? 

Check out this horrifying use of talk radio:

Is it privilege that makes Kristy ask that question? Was I too hasty in shutting her down? Was this suppose to be a teachable moment? Is my job, as a black friend, to stop her from approaching more black people and policing their language?

Well I don’t know Kristy all that well to school her. I also thought that she didn’t know me that well to broach a hot button topic like the N-word, without giving me notice. Ha HA! If I had known we would get down like that, I would have brought the following article for her to read:

Can Whites Say the N-word?


In this piece, author and commentator Toure,
breaks it down for us. With eloquence and wry humor, he tells us there are only TWO ways for white to use the N-word:

  1. Are you a journalist referencing or reporting on a news story? Toure used the example of Republican primary candidate, Rick Perry and the whole “Niggerhead” debacle that occurred fall of 2011. Fair enough. Sometimes a journalist has the duty to report the facts. No matter how jarring they sound. 
  2. Are you an entertainer and you’re taking the N-word to the stage? Singers, actors, writers and comedians, Toure maintains, should be allowed to use it because, “The stage is a special space where normal human laws and customs apply differently . . . Indeed that actor helps remind us how deplorable that action is by playing it out. Many whites have used nigger onstage to this end: to put nigger in the mouth of racists and losers and thus remind the audience that racism is dumb and deplorable.”
I am inclined to agree with him. I would also add, since I know plenty of friends in Academia, there are also legitimate instances where a non-black would use the N-word when it pertains to scholarship. It’s not a perfect system, it’s vastly more complex than the binary that’s usually put in place. Blacks will still have the right to say the word that rife with meaning; whether it’s a term of endearment or inserted in your favorite hip hop  song. But even blacks have to closely examine why we still say it. 
I found this video and I think it’s an interesting explanation as to why blacks still use the word and why some blacks won’t.
Here’s my general rule of thumb when it comes to words: If you’re feeling iffy about saying them, just don’t say them! If you’re not apart of the group that the word is meant for or you’ve not experience the same hardship and intolerance as they have, it’s best to stay mum.

Author: charishreid

Writer and Educator.

2 thoughts on “Who Can Say the N-word?

  1. Thank you for writing about this, Charish. I think you made the right call in deciding to shut the conversation down as soon as it started. You don't exist in this world to teach those in a privileged position what it's like to be in your shoes. That responsibility has to fall on those that benefit from privilege, acknowledged or not.


  2. Thank you, MoPomp* hehe.

    I now see that you're right. After awhile that get's tiring. And like I wrote, I'm not Cornell West, in that I don't get paid for it. There are plenty of books and articles to educate oneself with. We need to come up with The Pocket-sized Cornell West Action Figurine that does most of the work for us.


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