Some Ohio University students earlier this week were caught in the act of saying the n-word in a Snapchat video that was later shared on Twitter. The young woman identified in the video, who has since deleted her Twitter profile, apparently has received a significant amount of backlash from people who took offense to her video, many of them African American.
This is nothing new. While white people, students and otherwise, have been struggling with the morality of saying the n-word for decades, the history of the word’s usage dates back thousands of years. For that reason, understanding the concept shouldn’t be a struggle for anyone.
As a black student at OU, I heard white people say the n-word often, even friends of mine. Even though they likely thought the context in which they were using the word was not offensive, it always made me uncomfortable. One would think that a self-aware individual would be able to assess his or her own relationship with black culture, or lack thereof, how they are perceived by society, and make an informed decision about whether to share their repetition of a racial slur on social media.
Sadly, I don’t believe that’s how it works for everyone. In my mind, the woman in the video using the n-word, who was mimicking another video where young black men used the word, was probably unaware of the complicated nature of her and her friends’ actions. Still, that doesn’t make her video acceptable.
Though it is not advisable, it is also not a crime to lack self-awareness or to be ignorant of the racial implications of one’s actions, and I would argue that ignorance does not necessarily equate with prejudice; however, it is a side effect of white privilege. For people who are essentially seen as raceless in much of their day-to-day lives (yes, I’m talking about white people), it takes a lot of willful education to recognize that privilege.
Those who are more educated about the history of the n-word and the controversial role it plays in black culture today probably would simply avoid using the term, but those with no first-hand understanding of that dynamic could easily convince themselves that it’s OK for them to say the word because they’re only parroting someone else.
For those in that latter category, I’m telling you here that the answer is no: it’s not OK to use a racial slur, especially in a public way, simply because someone else said it first. Hopefully, a brief history of the term will be helpful.
A PBS Teacher’s Guide regarding the use of the n-word in “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” cites a description of the word from an Anti-Defamation League “Anti-Bias Study Guide” (1998): “A word that is an alteration of the earlier neger, nigger derives from the French negre, from the Spanish and Portuguese negro, from the Latin niger (black). First recorded in 1587 (as negar), the word probably originated with the dialectal pronunciation of negro in northern England and Ireland.”
In the PBS guide, Langston Hughes is quoted from “The Big Sea” (1940) as writing:
“Used rightly or wrongly, ironically or seriously… it doesn't matter. Negroes do not like it in any book or play whatsoever… The word nigger, you see, sums up for us who are colored all the bitter years of insult and struggle in America.”
While Hughes’ sentiment remains for the most part true, many within the black community have defended the use of the term by black people, calling it a reclamation of a word that was once used to degrade and is now used as a term of endearment. I personally have had arguments with relatives and friends over whether black and white people should be free to use the term, absent racial prejudice.
An article published on the African American Registry website, written by Phil Middleton and David Pilgrim, outlines the history of the n-word and the nature of its use in modern American culture. The n-word is one of many terms used to reference and degrade black Africans and African Americans.
“Over time,” the article states, “racial slurs have victimized all racial and ethnic groups; but no American group has endured as many racial nicknames as Blacks: coon, tom, savage, pickaninny, mammy, buck, samba, jigaboo and buckwheat are some.”
The article explains how the word has been “reborn” in popular culture, appearing in movies such as “Pulp Fiction” (1994) and “Jackie Brown” (1997), and used by black male comedians such as Chris Rock. Many rappers use the term freely and frequently in their music.
Nonetheless, the article continues, “The word, nigger, carries with it much of the hatred and disgust directed toward Black Africans and African Americans. Historically, nigger defined, limited, made fun of, and ridiculed all Blacks.”
This unsavory history is the reason many black people today argue that no one, regardless of race, should use the term. In an article for The Undefeated magazine, Brando Simeo Starkey writes about his reflections after reading slave narratives from the 1930s (which can be read here):
“White folk indoctrinated them (former slaves) into accepting their supposed inferiority. These narratives illustrate the success of this campaign of mental terrorism, and no word conveyed the depth of this internalized oppression more than ‘nigger.’”
In the African American Registry article, poet and professor Opal Palmer Adisa is quoted saying that the use of the term by black youth “is an internalization of negativity about themselves.”
Quite apart from the messy and controversial way in which some black people use the term, the n-word is still used regularly as a racial slur against black people. In a recent controversy, Mary Ann Lisanti, a Democrat who represents southern Harford County in the Maryland House of Delegates, admitted to using the n-word in private to describe Prince George’s County, a majority-African-American area, as a “nigger district.” It doesn’t take much searching, either of the internet or one’s own memory, to identify even more heinous examples of the word’s use as a racial slur.
For me, the word cannot be used without carrying the stench of racial prejudice along with it. The n-word stirs up unpleasant cultural and historical connotations that, while lessened when used by a black person, cannot be erased or forgotten. So, use the n-word if you so choose, but know that in doing so you enter yourself into a cultural tribulation that dates back thousands of years and you may find yourself on the receiving end of serious backlash. Regardless, whether black or white, those who use the word will not likely be celebrated for doing so.