If You’re Not Black, Don’t Use the N-Word
My cousin’s teenage daughter, whom I affectionately call my niece, was recently hanging with some family friends her age when a boy in the group started using the N-word when speaking with another group member (like you would use the term “buddy”). Like us, the boy was South Asian, so my niece told him it wasn’t right for him to use the word. He disagreed, saying, “My Black friends don’t mind.”
Knowing that I teach about culture and diversity for a living, the next time she saw me my niece inquisitively asked, “Is it ok for us to use the N-word?” By “us” she meant South Asians, as other people of color. It took me about a millisecond to respond—"No!”
A person of color who is not Black may identify as an ally, friend, supporter, or advocate for the Black community—which I certainly do—but when it comes to using this word, the answer for us is always is always a resounding, unequivocal “no.” Obviously, the same goes for White people.
Hearing this story, you might be thinking, “Oh this is just teenage behavior! As adults, only white supremacists use this word.” Unfortunately, though, I hear this term used often enough by adults (who, frankly, you’d think would know better) that I feel compelled to address the issue directly and openly. These adults, many of whom would vehemently tell you that they’re “not racist,” are often under the misguided impression that if the N-word shows up as a lyric in a song, or if a Black friend gives them permission, that it must be ok to use, at least sometimes. But it’s not.
Words affirm power, privilege, and supremacy because they hold historical significance. The N-word has been used for hundreds of years as racist language against Black people and has been used as part of an effort to directly and systemically marginalize, oppress, and stigmatize members of Black communities around the world. When we are not Black and we use this term, its use is connected to this history whether or not we intend it to be. Our intentions here don’t matter. The impact does.
We know the impact. Many Black people will tell you that hearing the N-word out of the mouths of people who aren’t Black (and even, sometimes, people who are Black) immediately sends feelings of anger, upset, pain, sadness, inferiority, nausea, and more raging through their bodies. In carrying meaning, words matter.
Which leads me to related questions that burn for many people who aren’t Black: “If Black people are saying it, doesn’t that make it ok?” or “Black people use it in music, so why can’t I sing along?”
Let me be clear here: How Black people choose to use the N-word is entirely up to them. When you are part of a community that has been systematically oppressed for generations, what you choose to do with language that has been used against you is up to you, because you’re directly impacted by its use. There may be disagreement among community members about how a racist slur should be re-claimed or used, but unless you’re part of that community, you don’t get to decide that it’s ok to use it.
If this feels unfair to you, let this be an opportunity for you to examine the impact of systems of power, privilege, and supremacy—and especially to explore how your own behavior can be part of the solution and not part of the problem. Because, in feeling that not being able to use the N-word is unfair, you’re part of the latter.
Here’s where I’m going to get even more direct. I have observed that using the N-word is particularly prevalent among South Asian men in Canada and the US, as a greeting or as term of “endearment.”
If you’re doing this, I suspect it’s because you affiliate with aspects of Black culture (for example, music, dance, and art), but know this: it is flat-out wrong for you to use the N-word because of its racist connotations. Even when a Black friend seems okay with it. And maybe, having experienced sting of racism yourself, you think your use of the N-word doesn’t make you racist. But how you choose to behave—including the words you use—impacts how others, including those in the Black community, experience oppression. So do better, and stop using racist language.
There’s a lot of talk about being inclusive these days, but we need to walk the walk if we want to see change—even when it comes to things that might feel small in the moment, like singing along to lyrics in a song. If you’re going to talk the talk, make sure you also walk the walk by interrupting actions rooted in racism when you see them—in yourself, and in others. Paying attention to the language you use is one important way to do this.
If you’re not Black, don't use the N-word. Full stop.