The N-Word

This article on about Brittney Cooper’s experience with the N-word on the 4th of July got me seriously annoyed. It’s time to end the ridiculous, manipulative and/or intellectually lazy (you pick) argument over the double standard regarding the use of the “N-word.”

Okay, so black people can use it and the rest of us can’t. I get that. Actually, I like that.

We live in a country that for generations had laws that said that only white people could own land, enjoy wage and hour protections, and vote. Conceding just one word to a group so royally screwed over by that history is a pretty weak attempt at making amends, but at least its a start. Anyway, mimicking people without their permission is just rude. So even if you can’t accept that saying the word makes you a racist, maybe you should consider the possibility that, racist or not, using it definitely makes you look like an inconsiderate ass.

And yeah, I also get that celebrities like Kanye and Jay Z use it in mixed company all the time. But, they also fly in private jets and vacation on yachts. Of all of those things, you’re wasting your time pining over the use of a word?

The very existence of the controversy is an insult to our collective intelligence.

So, let’s shut it down. Every time the whole tired out discussion comes up (and yeah, I mean among Asians, too), I say answer with your own twist on this:

Why does it mean so incredibly much to you to be able to say that word? It’s not like it’s the last hot dog in the stadium or the last potato chip in the bag. It has no monetary value nor hold the power to magically turn you black. Nope, it does none of those things. In fact, coming through your lips, the only thing it does is offend black people.

So why, oh why does it mean so much to you to offend black people? Why do you feel diminished in your rights and/or your person because you don’t get to make people feel like crap?

If we all speak up, maybe, just maybe the dialogue will finally go beyond it’s usual bounds of specious claims of free speech rights and silly ideas about how I get to if they get to that only suggest that you can concede nothing to black people, not even the use of a word.

For generations, whites’ use of the n-word toward black people was a symbol of white power precisely because black people could not protest against it. When we who are not black use the n-word in spite of the objections of black people, we are thumbing our noses at the long years of black struggle that were required to overcome the white power symbolized by that word. And, it is a reminder that the contest over the citizenship and humanity of black people that is being played out in the fights over voting rights, racial profiling, and the drug war, are still unsettled in our society.


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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

11 replies on “The N-Word”

Thanks for drawing attention to this article. But you mean the *comments* about the article annoyed you, right? On first read, it sounds like you’re saying the Slate piece itself was the source of annoyance.

You are an amazing brother. As another brother, I couldn’t have said it better.

I am “Black” and I don’t care who uses the word. There are times that it can be used in a derogatory manner and times that it can be used in a non-derogatory manner. Either way, I am numb to it, no matter who uses it. I will not allow it to have power over me, like an attack trained dog, that can get angry on hearing a command from his master. In fact if it is used towards me in a derogatory manner, I am glad, because now I know that I need to keep my eyes on you.

Oddly I have an entirely different reason why I think the so-called double standard creates a problem. Not because it hurts anyone to *not* use the word, and not because it’s “unfair” that black people can use it, but it’s entirely a matter of exposure.

We tend to adopt the vernacular we’re exposed to. It’s almost unconscious. An ex of mine would come back from military training and his mouth would be as foul as a septic tank, and it’d take some time for him to work that language back out of daily use. But while he’s in the military, it’s almost unavoidable to adopt.

Just like the n-word, the more someone is exposed to it, the more likely it is to creep into their vocabulary, whether they want it to or not. Someone who listens to rap because they actually like rap (odd, I know, but I hear it happens 😉 ) is almost predisposed at that point to have the word constantly on their lips, not because they necessarily even *want* to use it, but because hearing it in certain contexts, it’s become normalized.

There is still no reason why a white person should get bent out of shape for getting busted for saying it, provided they aren’t simply singing along to the song (yes, I think if you’re singing along, you should get to sing along to every word.) But again, it doesn’t hurt anyone not to use the word, so it shouldn’t really be such a fuss to tell people just don’t use the word.

But I think part of the pervasiveness of it isn’t necessarily due to actual prejudice, but because it’s becoming normalized through exposure.

The reason is simple: white people’s sense of entitlement. The stuff I read sometimes really boggles my mind! When NBA superstar Kobe Bryant took a bunch of inner city kids to Italy, whites flooded social media wanting to know why THEY were omitted…was it simply for blacks and browns? ( as one said). One white kid posted: “Gee, wish I could go to Italy! But, I don’t have the money and I’m not black or Hispanic!” He forgot to mention that he didn’t live in the ghetto/barrio, either.

“Why do blacks have a station called BET? If we had one called WET, they’d be screaming racism!” When gold medalist Gabby Douglas’ hometown honored her by painting a mural of her, whites wanted to know why her white teammates weren’t included. WTH? This was Gabby’s hometown honoring HER, let her teammate’s hometowns do it for them!

I could give hundreds of other petty examples but it all comes down to, they are white and refuse to be left out! WHY would you want to use that word? I don’t like it at all when blacks and other people of color use it. I’m sorry to inform you Asians, Hispanics and “Others”, but we are all in the same boat, been bitten by the same dog: racism! Never align yourself with hate and intolerance.

I don’t care how many rappers and criminals with self-hatred use that word, it is NOT acceptable and does NOT represent all black people! To the overwhelming number of black people, knowing what it really means, that word will NEVER become “normalized through exposure”. And any white person that I am friendly with or think of as a friend that uses it, with the excuse that blacks use it, won’t be my friend for long and will get ripped up one side and down the other. Save that kind of talk when you’re alone with your trailer trash/redneck/closet bigot buddies.

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