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While We Were Debating The Use of the N-Word…Actual Racism Happened

“Wassup n*gga.”

“That’s my n*gga right there.”

“I ride for my n*ggas.”

“Hey n*gger.”

“Look at that n*gger over there.”

Are you uncomfortable yet?

By which statements?

Is it the word or the context in which it was used?

In a discussion of racism and language’s role in perpetuating it, the racial slur is one of many tools someone can employ to spread seeds of hate and ideas of false superiority. And the power of the word “n*igger” to divide and subjugate cannot be ignored in the history between blacks and whites in America.

But in today’s culture, “n*gga” is not only a term that brings with it an immediate reminder of negative history or a representation of one of the nastier manifestations of human nature, but has also now become a term that brings with it conversations on reclamation, empowerment, popular culture, and identity.

A reminder of the ugly and a reinterpretation of its power.

“N*gga, whaaaaat?”

Yeah, that last statement is one where many would find cause for pause. However, the use of the word has been simultaneously championed and judged across the black community in heated debates and discussions any time “n*gga” rears it’s head in popular culture. The NAACP even had a symbolic “burying” of the term, in an effort to bring national solidarity on the debate. However, the term continues to be at the center of disagreements about its use.

Recently, Roland Martin wrote an article shaming, judging, and chastising those that have ever argued in favor of using the word.

And it reminded me of why the debate over the term itself is just as “silly, asinine, nonsensical, pathetic, grossly unintelligent and shameful” as any one side is accused of being.

Because while we build up well-articulated, deeply researched, boldly passionate arguments to defend our logic and destroy someone else’s logic on the use of “n*gga”, we apply energy to attacking one another while not actually advancing a healthy conversation about race relations or racial inequality.

As though one argument’s validity immediately disqualifies the other.

I think both sides of the debate are equally justified. Yes, this term is a charged word with too many sensitivities surrounding it to be used casually by people in society. But I also believe people can be truly sincere when they discuss reclaiming the word “n*gga”. It is not unique to black people to reclaim a word meant for harm and attempt turn it to a phrase of empowerment. I immediately think of conversations about reclaiming the word “b*tch”.

Discourse is healthy. Disrespect is not. Too many arguments against the word cross the line from educating and informing to judgments on the intelligence and level of respect the other person has for those that came before them. Meanwhile, I feel that uses of “n*gga” in art or conversation get drowned out by the more irresponsible and reckless uses of the word in popular culture and in efforts to be “hip”.

But while we tear one another down in this debate over n*gga…

Racial profiling continues to leave black men and women dead in the street (Jordan Davis, Trayvon Martin, Sean Bell, Jonathan Ferrell, Oscar Grant – you are not forgotten).

Minority families are disproportionately represented in communities that are financially strained, economically unstable, or plagued by violence.

Black children continue to lose in comparison to white counterparts in the educational system.

You know…just a few things.

So while we debate the notion of extinguishing this word from the mouths of anyone that dares utter it, let’s not allow ourselves to believe that this red herring is really a panacea for deconstructing some of the forces, institutions, ideas and stereotypes that limit black people in society.

Or put another way…

“N*gga, this ain’t even the real issue.”

An issue, yes. However, one that becomes too easy of a focal point, too simple of a rallying cry, and too much of a symbolic battle, when so much exists in the conversation about racial inequality and injustice to be vocal and outraged about.

I get it. People – regardless of race – that use the term “n*gga” and then claims it as a form of artistic expression, freedom of expression, a term of endearment, or a part of their culture, can be frustrating because you can never forget the past and that “n*gga” was meant to belittle and deconstruct black power and worth.


I also believe people attempt to move forward from an ugly past in their own way, and that part of the understanding of progress is that we can now actually have a conversation about the term “n*gga” with the expectation that people will listen or give two damns about it.

And when Black scholars deride, chastise, belittle, or dismiss the notion that there is any reality beyond what education has shown them to be true, I feel that this establishes this idea that “smart people know best” and that decisions about what can move our people forward are best left up to “them”.

But the likely reality is that its a combination of scholars educating, the black community reacting in solidarity to moments of ignorance, new generation’s re-purposing and redefining “n*gga”, old conversations being had in new ways, and challenging widely accepted views on the power of “n*gga” to oppress, that will actually move meaningful dialogue forward on race relations.

“These n*ggas can’t hold me back.”

So, should you use “n*gga”? If you’re not black, then nope. Never. Sorry, guys. it’s like eating Apple Jacks even when they don’t taste like apples. Sometimes the simplest explanation is, “because we say so.” But seriously, one group’s effort to reclaim or redefine a word should not be seen by the descendents of those responsible for giving the word negative life a license now to use it.

For the question of whether to use the word or not – I don’t believe there is a “should” or “shouldn’t” answer to this. However, if you are going to, at least use it responsibly. And if you are not going to use it, then at least embrace the idea that you have an obligation to debate responsibly as well.


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