Every so often the discussion of the N-word(Yes, the racially derogatory term) and who uses it, who can use it, who shouldn’t use it becomes a topic of discussion in our culture and in media. This last time it was triggered by Bill Maher using it on his HBO program as a “joke” during an interview. You can see clip here.
It was not used in that hateful manner that we know it can be used. Rather, it was used in that “I’m a progressive cool white guy, I can use this word for a good joke” I used to be in this camp. I majored in sociology. I spoke out about racism. I loved hip hop! Certainly, I could use the N-word every now and then in a “I’m down” sort of way. I could at least repeat it in rap lyrics or stand up routines, right? I came to understand that I was wrong to use it in anyway. Like Ice Cube tried to explain to Bill Maher a week later on his show. “It’s not your word anymore Bill, It’s ours now” It’s not our(white people) word anymore to be used in any fashion, “down” or otherwise. Bill Maher immediately came out and apologized but I was more uncomfortable watching him the following week being unable to listen to Ice Cube’s explanation and really take it in.
Maher was dismissive and uncomfortable and kept wanting to just move on. That word has meant death for so many people. We have to be able to let someone express their hurt or anger for using N-word without being defensive or we haven’t really apologized for anything. I will will never forget the last time I used the N-word. It was about 14 years ago. I was 27 years old. I had not used the N-word in a derogatory fashion to my recollection in years. Like I said, I was a social justice, anti-racist hip hop lovin’ white boy. At the time I was living in Oakland, California and I was on my way to lunch with my friend Tom. I had an experience the night before on the street where an African American guy was on the corner asking for some money but he was purposefully using some funny creative phrase where he used the N-word. I was walking along the sidewalk with Tom the next day relating this story and I used the phrase the guy had told me with the N-word. As I said the N-word, we were walking by an African American man eating lunch in his truck parked along the sidewalk. His head jerked up hearing me say the N-word. Our eyes met. I still see that look from him and my heart hurts to this day. He heard me. He didn’t know the context but in the moment even I knew “Fuck the context” This guy is sitting here having his lunch and he has to hear a white person say the N-word. That is the only context. Fuck my funny story. After our eyes met, I was shaken as I realized what I had just did. Tom was unaware and we continued to walk down the street. Each step I felt worse and worse and I realized that I had to go back and apologize. I think I tried to ignore that gut feeling initially but it became clear. I told Tom “I have to go back and apologize, that man heard what I said” I walked back to his truck and told him that I wasn’t directing that at him but I was relating a story where an black guy had used that word(Still defensive) and I said I’m sorry and I shouldn’t have said it. He just nodded. It was obvious that he heard me and it was obvious he wasn’t happy. I walked away and realized that I would never use that word again in any context. I will even skip over it when I’m going along with rap lyrics. We all know the word is a hateful word but African Americans have taken possession of that word to use in their own way. There is much discussion among African Americans themselves about the appropriateness of using that word in any way. That is not a debate for white people to weigh in on. The point is that I have no opinion on this nor should I. We need to keep our mouths shut and stick to the fact that we as white people do not “own” that word anymore and we should no longer use it in any context. It was upsetting a few years ago, when the NFL League office said that players would be penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct during games for using the N-word, and all I was hearing was white men in those positions and media saying African Americans shouldn’t use that word. So let me get this straight, white people use this word for hundreds of years spewing hatred and death and then when African Americans finally transform this word to use in a new context you have white people from all walks of life(Politicians, media, NFL, etc) all of sudden saying that this word is abhorrent and shouldn’t be used. What is abhorrent is white people thinking they can continue to tell people of color how to think, feel, and behave. It’s past time for white people to be quiet and listen.