TheGrio Daily

White people’s N-word

Episode 148

“The N-word is a specific choice that is used to hurt somebody; it is the knife.” Michael Harriot explains why there is no version of the “N-word” for white people. Despite some arguing that “Karen” or “cracker” is equally insulting, the words can’t compare because white people have not been subject to the same disenfranchisement and inhumanity that Black Americans have.

DETROIT – JULY 9: A mock funeral to symbolically bury the “N-word” is held at the 98th Annual NAACP National Convention July 9, 2007 in Detroit, Michigan. The funeral is part of the NAACP “STOP” campaign which aims to eliminate the negative portrayal of African Americans in the media. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

Full transcript below.

Announcer [00:00:00] You are now listening to theGrio’s Black Podcast Network. Black Culture Amplified. 

Michael Harriot [00:00:04] You know, if you used the term Karen or Becky, that’s kind of like calling a white woman the N-word or just calling somebody racist is kind of like using the N-word for white people. Well, not really, though. That’s why I want to welcome you to theGrio Daily, the only podcast that will ask what is the N-word for white people? I’m sure you’ve heard this argument before. Like, you know, whether you’re talking about Caucasian Americans or white women or Republicans or conservatives or it doesn’t even have to be racially tinged. Right. Like everybody says, saying this fill in the blank is like using the N-word. But I want to examine that today. For real. Like, what is the N-word for white people or for any group? What would we have to say that could hold such vitriol as the N-word? Right. 

Michael Harriot [00:01:09] So first, to understand that we would have to first examine the N-word. So the N-word is a weapon. It’s like a knife. You know, first of all, you know, somebody listening to the podcast is saying, well, why can y’all use it and we can’t? Well, if you walked in to your house and somebody is standing there with a knife, if you know them and you see them with a jar of peanut butter and jelly in their hand, you know what they’re doing with the knife. But if you don’t know them, if you don’t know the reason they’re using the knife, you don’t know the history of that knife, then you might think they’re going to try to stab you. And the N-word is kind of like that. There are some people who use the N-word, I’m one of them, and I always say that the N-word is a curse word, right? Like, I don’t go around calling everybody MFers or I don’t curse in front of my grandmother or in church. I use it in appropriate situations where I know that people will accept foul language. 

Michael Harriot [00:02:10] So when Black people use it, whether you think it’s wrong or not right, you have to understand that there is some context for those people using it. So when you think about the N-word and the history of it, you have to understand that it has always been used negatively by white people. Right? Like even the term Negus. N.E.G U.S, an Ethiopian term for a king or queen, is different from when white people say the hard R. Now that understand it and how it is weaponized, we got to look at like what is the equivalent for that word for white people. Now, first, the first thing that came to your mind is probably the word cracker. Well, you know, cracker is not like Negus, right? Cracker comes from different etymologies, and people disagree. But the explanation I tend to lean on is a whip cracker, a person who cracks the whip, a slave overseer. They will call crackers, whip crackers. And so there is cultural and historical context behind that word, even when it expanded to describe white people. You can understand that it has a cultural context and the meaning behind it, because you’ve got to think about this, right? Like when you lived in a place like South Carolina during the history of enslavement, Black people were the majority in South Carolina. So how did those Black people not revolt? How did that white minority keep the Black majority in line? 

Michael Harriot [00:03:43] Well, to those Black people, all of the white people were whip crackers, may not necessarily have a whip in their house or carry it on their horse. But, you know, the Constitution of the United States says that you have a constitutional duty to return or report an enslaved person who escaped. It’s the fugitive slave clause. So all of the white people in South Carolina were whip crackers. They were enslavers. They were the thing that stood between you and your freedom. It does not matter if you had a whip. To them all white people were the danger. All white people were whip crackers. So cracker, is it like the same as the N-word, because all of the Black people in America to white people were not enslaved. Most of the Black people in America had no impact on the well-being or the freedom of white people. So it’s kind of not the equivalent. Some people say, like just saying the word racist or Karen, there’s a big thing. Karen is like using the N-word, I guess it’s an insult for sure. But there are people named Karen. But while it is an insult, that insults connotes the delusion or the assumption of power over a Black person. That’s why people call white women Karens, it’s when their actions unreasonably suggest that they should have some kind of authority over a Black person. Like, you know, just being white or just being a white woman, you won’t be called a Karen. A Karen is a specific kind of white woman or a white woman who acts in a specific way, whereas I don’t know a Black person who has never been called a hard R N-word. And so, yeah, Karen, Becky, none of that fits, right? 

Michael Harriot [00:05:32] So for there to be some kind of equivalent of some kind of equal racial slur or insult or pejorative for white people or for anybody, here is what we would have to have. Right? We would have to have them be subjected to the disenfranchisement, inequality, violence, theft of their intellectual and physical work, they would have to be constitutionally enshrined as less than human, they would have to have that history that connotes socially, economically and politically that they were less than the person who was using the slur, they would have to have most of the people like them subjected to that same kind of inhumanity, and they would need a word to connote all of that, all of that negativity, all of that violence, all of that inhumanity in just like two or three syllables. And then it would also have to connote that negativity to people who weren’t enslaved. You know, when you call a Black person the N-word, what it suggests is that, hey, because your people were subjected to that history, not only are my people superior to you, but everyone who bears your skin color is reduced to the worst thing that ever happened to a racial group on the history of this continent. That’s what that word means. 

Michael Harriot [00:07:08] There can’t be a word like that for white people if white people haven’t had that done to them. Black people have never massacred white people. Black people have never subjected them or a majority of them to an inhumane or unequal treatment. Right. They may have been individually subjected to inequality, but even being white didn’t subject them to that inequality. They have never had to worry that their children and their grandchildren, a great, great, great, great, great grandchildren, would be subjected to that inequality. They never had to worry that their mama and the grandmama and their great, great, great, great, great, great grandmama was being subjected to a slur just because someone called it at you. When they call you N-word word they’re talking about your mama, your grandmamma, your granddaddy. They talked about all of the Black people who came before you. All the Black people looked like you. They talking about your children and they just can’t be a word. Well, okay, so maybe there is one term that is the equivalent of the N-word for white people, and that is the term white people. Because when you say white people, it connotes all of that inhumanity to white people. To us, it ain’t a slur because white people could just say Black people. But the N-word is a specific choice that’s used to hurt somebody. It is the knife, it is the bullet, it is the whip. It is the hangman’s noose. 

Michael Harriot [00:08:42] When you see these articles about people going into work and their coworkers have hung a noose, that connotes a history that conjures up the images of the people who were slaughtered by white people. And there has never been a term that can define that. Because when you say anything, when you say, Ofay, that was an old word in the seventies, ya’ll gotta look that up, or cracker or slave master or racist. Right. There is a loophole for white people, right? They could always say, that ain’t me. But when white people use the word N-word, you know, specifically, they’re talking about all the Black people. You have been heaped on a pile of insignificant inhumanity, and that’s why there is no equivalent to the N-word. The only equivalent to the N-word is the N-word. That’s why you also have to download this podcast. That’s why you have to subscribe to it. That’s why you have to download that Grio app. And that’s why you got to tell a friend/ And that’s also why we leave you with a Black saying. And today’s Black saying is,” The N-word for white people is…we’ll let you know when we figure that one out.” We’ll see you next time on theGrio Daily. If you like what you heard, please give us a five star review. Download theGrio app, subscribe to the show, and to share it with everyone you know. Please email all questions, suggestions and compliments to podcasts at theGrio dot com. 

Announcer [00:10:07] You are now listening to theGrio’s Black Podcast Network. Black Culture Amplified. 

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