It’s got a storied history, horrific connotations and plenty of airtime on radios and Spotify playlists all over the world. For the most part, we as a society steer clear altogether of using the “N-word” (I’m not even going to say it here, for example, but you’ll all understand which word I’m talking about).
If you were to say it out loud, you’d probably catch a lot of flak from people of all colours around you; it’s offensive, and it’s also probably the quickest and most efficient way to declare to whoever’s around you: “I’m a racist”. That is, unless you’re Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar or anyone else in the music industry who uses the N-word liberally in many of their songs.
So what’s the difference? Surely, if a word’s offensive, a word’s offensive; if it’s okay for 50 cent or Run the Jewels to use in their song, why can’t we sing that song without having to think of our skin colour first? It’s a tough question, but Ta-Nehisi Coates has given us a definitive answer on why white people can never use the N-word.
Thanks to the success of his book Between the World and Me, Coates has emerged as one of the biggest authorities when it comes to discussions about race, class or gender, and when he was asked by a student at Evanston Township High School in Illinois why white people can’t ever use the N-word, Coates had a thoughtful and brilliant response.
— Random House (@randomhouse) 7 November 2017
If you could describe Coates’ ideas in one word, that word would be “context”. Addressing the high school audience, he said that it would be okay for his wife to refer to him as “honey”, but if a random women came along and referred to Coates as “honey”, it would be weird and inappropriate, would it not?
Okay, so from there, Coates used two more examples: “b***h” and “f****t”, which both have negative connotations, but can be used in positive ways depending on the situation. Coates’ wife may be able to refer to her friends as the B-word, while the F-word can be used by people like Dan Savage, the gay American writer and showrunner who wanted to use the F-word in the title of one of his shows.
But as a heterosexual male, Ta-Nehisi Coates can’t use either word without being offensive. Context. Similarly, if Coates was visiting one of his white friends, and his friend referred to his place as a “white-trash cabin”, it wouldn’t be okay for the African American Coates to refer to the place as a “white-trash cabin”, because he isn’t white.
It’s all part of the social contract that dictates that certain words are reserved for certain sectors of society. So then, the follow-up question: “why do many white people have difficulty extending things that are basic laws of how human beings interact to black people?” Let’s see what Coates had to say about that.
“When you’re white in this country, you’re taught that everything belongs to you. You think you have a right to everything. … You’re conditioned this way. It’s not because your hair is a texture or your skin is light. It’s the fact that the laws and the culture tell you this. You have a right to go where you want to go, do what you want to do, be however — and people just got to accommodate themselves to you.
So here comes this word that you feel like you invented. And now somebody will tell you how to use the word that you invented. ‘Why can’t I use it? Everyone else gets to use it. You know what? That’s racism that I don’t get to use it. You know, that’s racist against me. You know, I have to inconvenience myself and hear this song and I can’t sing along. How come I can’t sing along?’”
Ta-Nehisi Coates made a point about how not being able to say nigga can be insightful for white people because it can show what the black experience feels like.
— KYLE A.B. (@kyalbr) 12 November 2017
But let’s not let this become white-bashing: indeed, Coates himself offered an olive branch to everyone out there that day who might potentially have learned a lesson that day.
“The experience of being a hip-hop fan and not being able to use the word ‘ni**er’ is actually very, very insightful. It will give you just a little peek into the world of what it means to be black. Because to be black is to walk through the world and watch people doing things that you cannot do, that you can’t join in and do. So I think there’s actually a lot to be learned from refraining.”
So there you have it, folks. I hope that makes sense, and that in pursuit of a world where everyone feels valued and equal regardless of their age, gender, race or social background, we’re all a little bit more careful about how we use certain words around the diverse people we love.