Dear white friends and family: Whether it's ni**a or the n-word, you just can't say it
“Now, white people, you can’t say ni**a/Sorry gotta take it back. Now, black people, we’re not ni**as/God made us better than that.” – Lupe Fiasco, “Audobon Ballroom,” Food &Liquor II – The Great American Rap Album, Part 1
To paraphrase Lupe Fiasco: White people, you can’t say the n-word.
If for some reason, this current “All Black Everything” moment – where gold medalists, TV hosts, presidents, pop artists, golfers, Supreme Court justices, etc. are black – if this moment has you confused or if for some reason you think that 2 Chainz or Trinidad James has authorized you to use the n-word at will, please refer to Lupe Fiasco’s “Audubon Ballroom.” He apologizes and rescinds your “right” to use the word and he does so by reminding us of our recent history: “Martin, Baldwin, Audubon Ballroom . . .”
Sadly, we have had this debate or public conversation too many times to recount here. I distinctly remember the NAACP actually burying the word – or at least they ceremoniously buried it – and my hope was that our white friends and family would take the hint. You can’t say it.
Clearly black people have reclaimed and re-purposed the word over scores of years, but not even your favorite rapper disassociates the n-word from its white supremacist history. For a long time now, I have challenged those who criticize rappers for using the n-word in “positive” contexts to actually listen to the music. More often than not, the deployment of the n-word in popular rap music is not done so in some utopian, “positive” vein.
The meanings of the n-word, especially when used by black artisans, are nuanced and multi-faceted. Believe it or not, the meaning and the use of the n-word often varies by both situational context and intonation. Sorry, but because of these complexities – we gotta take it back.
Recently, shock comic Lisa Lampanelli referred to her “beyotch” (in this case meaning: good friend) Girls star Lena Dunham, as her “ni**a” on Twitter. You might recall that Gwyneth Paltrow was also seduced by the n-word celebrations in Kanye West and Jay-Z’s infectious “Ni**as in Paris.” She too lost her way on Twitter. What both of these women and these instances of white people using the n-word has in common is that each person believes that her association with black people – men in these cases – affords them the right to use the n-word by association.
While I am sure that their black friends will back them up on this (and some have), I know of no rule in the cultural history of black folk that extends the kind of racial complexity and sociolinguistic felicity required to use the n-word to folk outside of black speech communities unless they are unabashedly racist; I know of no rule that permits them to use the term frivolously and with the sociolinguistic benefits of our hard fought battle to reclaim the term itself.
And that’s where these seemingly harmless uses of the n-word by white folk, enamored with black popular culture, actually rub many black folk the wrong way. Even if you don’t completely buy in to the deconstructed, de-fanged uses of the n-word within the black community, you have to acknowledge that these nuanced uses of the word reflect deliberate, contested attempts to reclaim (and re-purpose) one of the most hateful, offensive, and degrading terms used in the history of white supremacy and racism in this nation.
The very fact that you can use the n-word (on social media) in these ways comes from a history of struggle within the black community. And although this linguistic struggle to use the n-word in different contextual situations within black speech communities is at best culturally complex and at worst disconnected from this nation’s history of racism, it still represents black people’s struggle.
That means, that no one rapper or no series of inter-racial relationships can in and of himself or in and of itself, permit any white person to use the word in any public way, ever.
Otherwise you simply risk the probability of being seen as a racist.
James Braxton Peterson is the Director of Africana Studies and Associate Professor of English at Lehigh University. He is also the founder of Hip Hop Scholars LLC, an association of hip-hop generation scholars dedicated to researching and developing the cultural and educational potential of hip-hop, urban and youth cultures. You can follow him on Twitter @DrJamesPeterson