The Politics of the N-Word

By:Beylul Russom

The dehumanization of the black body has been explicitly imposed throughout American history. A popular saying, “sticks and stones my break my bones but words will never hurt me,” is personified through years of blatant racism by the use of the notorious “N” word. There is no myth to disparage that the deep-rooted history of this word was created and intended to prevail the suppression of black bodies.

The word carries baggage, an elongated past that was (and arguably still is) a slur that has haunted our community for generations. Regardless, every black person has had an experience with it and can tell accounts of when they first heard the word or had it used against them.

For years, white Americans implored the derogatory term to differentiate themselves with the black community. Signs said, “No niggers allowed” or high school teenagers wearing shirts that each one wears a letter spelling the explicit (in reference to recent news from Arizona).

But after years of whites exploiting this term to categorize us and hold us back, we’ve taken it to reclaim it and criticize its definition. As time passes, the complexities and politics of using “nigger” have expanded the debate of the perpetuation of so called “post racial” America’s reluctance to remove itself from it.

I personally believe that as a community, we’ve grown comfortable with “nigga” being used in our everyday vocabulary. I also believe that we are taking the word back and are working to redefine it. We feel comfortable to say it amongst each other because it is used to characterize us. No one else was called “nigger” but us.

This evolution is comparable to the evolution of “bitch”. It has manifested in our culture, appearing countlessly in our music, comedy, and films. But despite all of this, the defined line who can say it or not, continues to be blurred and crossed frequently. Opinions on this vary from person to person. Some of us may say we are okay with the use of term amongst our community members and others reject the use of it in any and all circumstances (which echoes respectability politics). There isn’t a unanimous decision across the broad on how we feel about it.

Like any story, there is another side to this argument. I’ve witnessed many white people defend their use of “nigga” because they have black friends or they’ve been given the green light by their “black friend” to say whatever they like. White people bring up these critiques time and time again. The “Why do you get to say it and I can’t?” or “my boyfriend/girlfriend is black and he/she lets me use it” defense has been exhausted and is frustrating because it deflects the sentiments and viewpoint towards its use.

Of course white people can’t say it. It reiterates the fact that “post racial America” has fallen flat on its face. White people for centuries have been favored in a system, built by them, to maintain their power in societal operations. They still have the power to enact racism through policies, behaviors, rhetoric, etc. on black people by simply using this word. Black twitter has been the tool amongst most of us to push back at this “approval” because there is a habitual trend of misunderstanding that needs to be corrected.

What is so jarring to me are the excuses that are often used to safeguard their “freedom of speech” by bringing into discussion their beloved black partner. What I at first thought was a lie, has manifested itself on twitter. On numerous occasions, some of us have defended a white person’s ability to use the word because we (as in black people) say it all the time. There is this mentality that, “well if we’re going to say it then should let everyone say it”. Progress isn’t being met because you allow your white partner to say whatever they choose.

It doesn’t take away its historical context. Yes we are saying it, that’s a very good point. But until racism and white supremacy has been eliminated in its entirety, there isn’t enough room or acceptance yet for anyone else because we’re still recovering from “nigger” being used against us. We’re still in the process of trying to figure it out on our own terms. I see this all the time being challenged by the diversity of black twitter and social media in general, which is opening doors for questions to be asked and also setting boundaries appropriate to our needs.

More recently, what I’ve noticed on social media is other people of color using the “nigga”. For them, the line hasn’t always been clearly defined with bold paint. The focus of attention has always pertained to white people because of abstracted checks of privilege and power. Therefore this begs the question, are other communities of color allowed to say nigga?

Responses to this have varied between yes and no. The problem is, there isn’t a pass because you are a marginalized group of people. ‘Nigga’ is very specific to black people and prejudice against the black community. That isn’t to say that other people of color don’t have slurs or other labels about them but there was never approval given.

It’s easy to lump us together as subjugated and oppressed groups but this doesn’t explain nor demonstrate the considerable amount of differences in experiences and struggles. ‘Nigga’ perpetuated anti-black biases and other people of color can still exhibit that and vise versa. Because one black person says its okay for other PoC to use it, it doesn’t speak on behalf of all blacks, including this article.

Frequently I’m told that I’m overly sensitive about “nigger” being used. I receive mixed signals; being told it’s just a word while also being told it’s more than just a word. As I’ve grown and look back extensively on my experiences as a black woman, I’ve realized just how much we’ve been silenced on our opinions.

I’m not sensitive to a word but have understood what it means. It’s disconcerting knowing how much a word divulged and expanded itself into a multidimensional war of words. I’ve only just scratched the surface of so many deeper issues that this brings. Respectability politics, cultural appropriation, gentrification, etc. are all impacted by it. But I fervently stand by the reluctance to permit everyone say it until we’ve decided when we’re ready.

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