By now, most people know where they stand when it comes to the dreaded “n-word.” It’s either the most vile and hurtful word in the history of the human language that no one anywhere should ever say, or it’s a term of endearment among friends that still stings of oppression when used by others. It’s a word packed with a history incapable of being erased, or something to be reclaimed so as to deny it power. Or, it’s just a word. Your opinion is your own.
But no matter how many loud and very public debates that come about regarding the “n-word,” it remains inflammatory and once it is uttered, each side grabs its weapons and suits up for another battle. It’s been happening for the better part of 20 or more years, and doesn’t look to be letting up soon.
Which is why it isn’t surprising that Gwyneth Paltrow caused such a stir. The actress was attending a concert in Paris featuring her friends Jay-Z and Kanye West when the two high-profile rappers began performing their hit “Ni**as in Paris.” The coincidence wasn’t lost on Paltrow, who took the opportunity to take a picture and send it on Twitter with the caption “Ni**as in paris for real.” Cue outrage.
She obviously didn’t mean any harm, though she failed at being clever. But any time a white person dares to cross that line there is sure to be a backlash. In this instance there was backlash and then a backlash to the backlash. While some chastised Paltrow for her flippant use of the “n-word,” others argued that Jay, Kanye, hip-hop, and black people as a whole were ultimately responsible for her cavalier attitude toward the word. This, according to the detractors, is the byproduct of having allowed usage of the “n-word” to become so ubiquitous in pop culture that even if black people were looking to reclaim it, it couldn’t possibly belong to us any more.
We’ve tried to make a distinction between the word ending in -a or -er and left everyone confused as to what is the appropriate protocol. Jay and Kanye almost dare their largely white audiences to say it by naming such a catchy tune “Ni**as in Paris” and then performing it a dozen times a night. Why wouldn’t a white person feel it was OK to say? Why would they think it was derogatory? Why wouldn’t they feel as if the word belongs to them?
Well, it has always belonged to white people. White people invented it, assigned it definition, filled it with meaning, and passed it along. It came to black folk secondhand. In our communities, it took on a new life. Much to the chagrin of some, it became a word nearly synonymous with “brother,” or as multipurpose as “dude.” It became a intractable part of our lexicon, finding its way into our literature, our films, and yes, our music. The “n-word” has been a part of cultural output long before Jay and Kanye made a hit record of it.
But this modern period is notable because only now have white people been shamed for using the word, even as black artists and public figures advocate its re-appropriation. It’s a source of confusion for white people, who can’t understand why it’s still offensive if they say it, and a point of derision for those who wish to abolish its usage altogether. They argue, as many have done in this latest brouhaha with Paltrow, that by continuing to use the word, especially in such public ways where mass media makes it available to large swaths of people, we’ve given permission to others to use it and have surrendered our right to outrage.
As sensible as that seems, it misses this: word have meanings, but words also have relationships that change with each person that uses them. The fact is, no matter how much the relationship with the “n-word” has evolved within the black community, it simply hasn’t changed with regards to white folks. It still carries with it pain, death, and hatred. Even if Jay-Z, Kanye, or President Obama were to sign off on a permission slip for all of white America for carte blanche usage of the “n-word,” it would never fail to offend a large portion of black people when used in an improper context.
And even that context varies depending on the person. Paltrow may feel comfortable using the “n-word” freely in the company of her black friends, where another white person could only be given a “pass” if it was being reading from a historical text. It may confuse or frustrate white people, but then one has to wonder: why exactly would you want to say it so badly it irritates you to not be able to do so?
The conversation will undoubtedly continue, but it has to be noted that intergroup and intragroup dynamics regarding the “n-word” are indeed separate and unequal. Whether or not that is “fair” seems irrelevant. After all, it’s just a word.
Follow Mychal Denzel Smith on Twitter at @mychalsmith