With recent release of Django Unchained last week the debate over the usage of the n-word has cropped up into the American dialogue yet again. Proponents of the word, usually members of the Black race, say that they have reclaimed the word and therefore it has lost its power. Detractors sight that the n-word was used to keep down an entire race and the re-emergence of it into the American dialect not only further insults the black race but also makes it okay for non-members of the black race to use it. Since this is a controversial subject, let’s look at all sides.
Perspective 1: Blacks that are pro n-word.
These individuals are typically make up the younger generation with few having experienced the racism of the latter 1960’s and 70’s to many who have never experienced racism period. These people are typically hip-hop music fans who have grown up with the genre’s free usage of the n-word and therefore associate it not with racism but with hip-hop. For these people the n-word is a term of endearment and the same as calling another person a brother. They don’t see the racism because it’s not inherent in their connotation. However, if someone were to use the n-word in a racist manner, then the story would be different. They would be one of the first people to cry racism and actively fight against it. There is a problem with this philosophy. For one, who is allowed to use it? First only white people could say it. Then only black people could say it. Eventually, non-white races were able to say it too. Now, stars like Samuel L. Jackson who played the vilified house slave, Stephen, in Django Unchained are encouraging some whites to say it publically.
In an online interview with reporter Jake Hamilton, who is white, of Jake’s Takes Hamilton asks Jackson how he feels about the n-word's usage and Jackson cuts him off mid-question. Here’s a brief excerpt from the interview.
Jackson (in reference to the n-word): “No. Nobody. None. The word would be?”
Hamilton: “Oh, I don’t want to say it.”
Jackson: “Why not?”
Hamilton: “I don’t like to say it.”
Jackson: “Have you ever said it?”
Hamilton: “No, sir.”
Jackson: “Try it.”
Hamilton: “I don’t like to say it.”
Jackson (yelling): “Try it!”
Hamilton: “Really? Seriously?”
Jackson: “We’re not going to have this conversation unless you say it.”
The uncomfortable part of the interview ends with them moving on to another question. The odd thing is that Jackson refused to say the n-word himself but he still egged on Hamilton. It seems that he was just having a bit of fun at Hamilton’s expense. Fun or no fun, this interview brings up an interesting point.
Perspective 2: The White Person
Throughout the years the n-word has taken on many connotations for members of the white race. It began during slavery as a way to call an African slave “ignorant” thus making the white man seem superior. In the years following slavery, the n-word became a reminder of slavery. It was a way to let the black race know that just because they were emancipated it did not mean that they were equal to whites. This lasted from the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 past the Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s and into the 70’s. In the 80’s the word all but disappeared from the popular American discourse as black people began to be seen as equals. However, hip-hop in the form of gangster rap would resurrect the word to educate the black youths about the veiled racism in the ghettos and remind the youths of the struggle of their ancestors. Over time the n-word’s usage in hip-hop became less about a cry for freedom and more about a way to sell records. This began in the late 90’s and continues today.
So if you’re white, what does this mean for you? Ultimately, it means that if you have a really understanding black friend, you can say it in front of them but that might backfire if you say it in a public place in front of other black people. If you’re white and don’t have any black friends or have never seen a black person in real life except on TV (yes, this kind of person does exist) then you will definitely be considered racist even if you were only repeating what you heard on TV or in a song. If you are a racist white person, then you can find new and creative ways to show your veiled racism by saying the n-word and the black person next to you won’t suspect that you’re racist because they have given you permission to say the word. In either case, it’s a safe bet that no white person should use this word because every black person they meet is going to have a different set of rules for usage of the n-word. It’s a lose-lose situation.
Perspective 3: Blacks against the n-word
These people are usually black scholars, affluent black people and black people who have experienced the horrors of racism in the 1960’s and remember what it meant when a racist white person used the n-word to degrade them. These people see the black race’s acceptance of the n-word as self-degradation rather than empowerment. They don’t use the n-word as a term of endearment. They call a brother a brother and a friend a friend. For them, the n-word has never shed the soot of the days of slavery or the Civil Rights Movement. The word cannot be sanitized and therefore should not be used. Some might see this as a sign of bitterness from events long gone and in some cases they might be right. After all some of these people were hosed down when they marched the streets in peace. It’s understandable that there would be some residual anger. Still, times have changed and you have to change with it. Blacks can’t still be mad about slavery and the Civil Rights Movement. Many of the whites alive today didn’t participate in either event. Those that did either harbor hatred or are truly sorry for that abhorrent part of American history they played a part in. It’s best to do like Dr. King and love our enemies instead. Those who took no part in racism should not be blamed for it.
Perspective 4: Non-whites and non-blacks that use the n-word
Generally, black people only get mad when white people use the n-word. They’re usually okay with Hispanics saying it because they consider them lighter skin black people. They’re okay with Asians saying it if they happen to be apart of the hip-hop culture. If they’re not, then they can be viewed as racists. It’s a roll of the die with that one. If any other race says it, it’s racist.
If you’re confused by any of these rules and perspectives, you should be. That’s why this debate has been going on for so long. There is no right way to say the n-word and everyone has his or her own view on how and who should say it. One wonders if the better thing to do would be to delete the word entirely. It would stop a lot of confusion and contrary to some people’s belief it’s not going to blot out the memory of slavery or the Civil Rights Movement. Would it be so bad to move beyond the n-word and see what’s next? After all Black people have changed names more times than Diddy. First they were Africans. Then they were made into slaves and became the n-word. In the 60’s they became Black people and in the 90’s they became African Americans. Some of those titles the black race has earned and some they haven’t. The question is which would you rather be?
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