But, as Rob Fields pointed out in his op-ed on Loop21 earlier this year, there may be consequences of my use of the word:
Show me another ethnic/racial group that’s worked as hard as we have to either reclaim a word used to dehumanize them or force it into global circulation.
Remember when Michael Jackson said “Jew me” and “kike me” in “They Don’t Care About Us”? That entire album, HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book 1, was pulled and reissued. Why? Because Jews maintain a morally defensible position: They were not then, nor are they now perpetuating the idea within their community, let alone to a global audience, that either of those words are worth reclaiming.
Clearly, the black community has come to a different conclusion about the n-word. Fields argues that in “reclaiming” the n-word (and all its variations) we have popularized, globalized, and normalized its usage, which can be confusing to those — especially a younger generation — outside of our community.
And, given the out-sized impact black culture has on popular culture, the n-word might not seem so bad or so foreign to non-blacks who hear us use the word with such regularity and with such nonchalance.
Still, even if a younger generation of non-blacks doesn’t fully understand the history of the n-word, everyone understands a general rule: we (blacks) can say it, and you (everybody else) can’t. Beyond that, I really can’t give you a good reason why I use it. I like saying it? It’s the most accurate way of describing certain people? It’s how I want to express my deep affection for my male friends? None of those reasons really fly.
One thing I’ve never done is use the n-word in a public setting. I’ve never said it outside of a circle of my close friends and family. And, I wouldn’t dare. I’ve never said it in a news report, in a business meeting, at a social gathering, or in front of a crowd of people, even if that crowd was made up exclusively of blacks. That suggests I clearly recognize how vile the word is and that it shouldn’t be used at all, by anyone.
My problem has been that no one ever held me accountable for my, at times, gratuitous use of the n-word. So, while I can toil endlessly about who I do and don’t mind saying the n-word, I never stopped to think that maybe there are people who don’t want to hear that word from me. There are plenty of black people who don’t want to hear fellow blacks use the n-word, but we give each other a pass. Stop.
Sure, go ahead and hold the two CNN reporters and Gwyneth Paltrow accountable and give them a chance to explain themselves. Ask Ms. Paltrow to explain herself. But, make me explain myself as well. Poet and author Oliver Goldsmith said that “every absurdity has a champion who will defend it.” Using the n-word 20 times during a casual conversation is absurd. And, I can’t defend that.
So, for all intents and purposes, this will be my last “ni**a.”