New debates are springing up in a long-contentious dialogue about reclamation of oppressive language.
During the recent ESPN “Outside the Lines” special discussion of a proposed NFL rule to penalize the n-word, Twitter erupted in critique, criticism, and debate.
In the midst of this debate, though, there is generally one rule when it comes to the n-word on which there is almost total consensus among Black people:
Yet White people don’t seem to get it.
I’d likely be a wealthy man if I had a dime for every time I’ve heard a White person ask “If Black people can just throw the n-word around all the time, why is it not okay for White people to use that word?”
I can only imagine the number of dimes Black people would have. Innumerable.
And despite how important listening to the voices of marginalized and oppressed people is to social justice work on the part of those with privilege, White people on the whole really seem to have hard time with this one.
Perhaps this is because we don’t like being told that anything is off limits to us.
Or perhaps we just have trouble hearing the voices of those we consider, at some basic level, to be lesser, not fully human.
Regardless of the reason, maybe it’s time for a different tact.
Perhaps you can hear it better or differently if a White person explains why exactly we don’t get to use the n-word, regardless of what Black folks are doing.
So here is my message to you.
Dear White Folks,
We have to stop using the n-word.
Like really, really.
And I know what you’re thinking, “But—But—‘They’ get to say it all the time!”
Well, tough cookies.
Here’s why it’s not okay for us to say it, no matter what Black folks are doing:
1. We Lost the Privilege
You know that whole 600 year time period when White Europeans were buying and selling Black Africans as chattel?
And remember how that whole system was enforced by a violent system of repression whereby Black slaves who did not act the way the White folks wanted them to were beaten and murdered?
Oh, and remember that time after slavery when Black people were locked in a system called Jim Crow that used a similar fear of violence and repression to keep Black people in “their place?”
Well, in the midst of all that shit, there was a word invented by White people as a pejorative for Black folks. And it was used just about every time a Black person was whipped, chained, beaten, insulted, spat upon, raped, lynched, or otherwise humiliated and mistreated by White folks.
Thus, I really don’t care how much White folks want to use that word.
I don’t care how unfair you think it is that someone else gets to use it when we don’t.
Our people gave up the privilege to use that word the moment we invented it as a tool of oppression.
2. Why Should We Get a Say in the Conversation about That Word?
There is a lively debate in African American communities between those who think it’s time to “Bury the N-Word” and those who think it can be reclaimed as a word of camaraderie and brotherhood/sisterhood.
In his brilliant piece entitled “Exporting the N-word,” Coleman Collins explains,
There are generally four schools of thought on the word “nigga.” There’s the first and largest group — black working-class (but not exclusively so) people who say it casually because it’s what they’ve always done, or simply because they don’t like being told what to do.
There’s the small but vocal group of middle-class black intellectuals who claim to have “reclaimed” the word, to have turned it into a term of endearment instead of a tool of oppression. It’s a neat solution to a messy problem. It ends in “A,” after all!
The third group is comprised of the “respectable Negroes,” the bootstrap types, the “don’t you embarrass me in front of these White folks” crowd. Also largely middle- and upper-middle class, the worst of these would have us believe that if black men only pulled their pants up, stopped littering, and stopped calling each other that word, racism and poverty would come to an end.
Last but certainly not least, you have the extremely sympathetic older generation that worked to have the word eradicated from White people’s vocabularies only to find it shouted from street corners and blasted from car windows in the future they worked so hard for.
If White folks are interested in this debate, we should listen, but we should not assume that there is consensus within Black communities on the issue.
That is a healthy conversation, and it’s a part of a long history of marginalized communities attempting to “reclaim” words that were once oppressive.
No matter how long that conversation goes on in Black communities, though, White people do not get to take part.
As the ones from whom the word of violence and oppression must be reclaimed, we do not get to have a word in that conversation. Plain and simple.
3. Not Everything Should Be in Bounds to Us as White People
The question of why White people can’t use the n-word is, in essence, the epitome of White privilege.
As White folks, we tend to think that every door should be open to us, every conversation should be ours, and every space should welcome us. We think this way because, when it comes to racialized spaces, that tends to be the case.
We have the privilege of having our voices heard and our presence recognized in just about every space there is.
Thus, we hate it when we are told that we are not actually welcome in a conversation.
But here’s what we need to understand: We’re the only people that get the privilege of access to whatever racialized space we want.
There is hardly a single context in the United States in which a White person (but particularly White, cisgender men) cannot assert themselves into a space and have their voice heard.
White women can hopefully begin to (though never fully) understand this when you think about the ways in which you are denied voice and space by dominant men.
Though these oppressions cannot be compared, hopefully this comparison can help generate a little empathy into why it simply is not okay for us as White people to expect our voices to be heard in every conversation.
Just because we are not welcome to use one word in the English language does not mean that we are being discriminated against.
No, it’s not “racist against White people” to assert that certain things are off limits to us, as people of privilege.
4. It Is Not, in Fact, a Double Standard – It’s a Standard
There’s literally nothing more on this one I could say than what Jay Smooth of Ill Doctrine lays down here:
That’s it! That’s all you need to know!
Which means that we can put this whole thing to rest, right?
Well, if you’re still not convinced, then take 5 minutes and 15 seconds and listen to Chesca Leigh drop all the knowledge (plus, her lipstick is too fierce):
And when you’re done, say it with me: “As a White person, I won’t use the n-word any more.”
Jamie Utt is a Contributing Writer at Everyday Feminism. He is the Founder and Director of Education at CivilSchools, a comprehensive bullying prevention program, a diversity and inclusion consultant, and sexual violence prevention educator based in Minneapolis, MN. He lives with his loving partner and his funtastic dog. He blogs weekly at Change from Within. Learn more about his work at his website here and follow him on Twitter @utt_jamie. Read his articles here and book him for speaking engagements here.