I've been thinking about this topic for a while now. I recently went to a party with a couple of my friends, and usually, at a PWI like Rutgers, I'll always aware when I'm one of the few black people in the room. And since I'm one of the few black people in the room, I'm always hyper-sensitive of any racial tensions that may arise within the party scene. I think it was Meek Mill's "Dreams and Nightmares" that came on and I was dancing with these two white girls, and I couldn't tell if they were singing along or not because it was too dark, but I swore I heard them say the n-word. It just made me so angry, and I hate that as one of the few black people in the room, I felt obliged to tell them that the word isn't something for them to say.
And that had been my entire mindset about the word for a while now, that only black people can say the word because we're the only ones who can truly understand the context of the word. But my boyfriend and I got into a discussion a few nights ago about Halsey, who is a popular biracial — with one black parent and one white parent — singer, though she is white passing.
We got into a discussion of whether or not she should be able to say the 'n-word,' and my boyfriend said that she shouldn't be able to because if her fanbase is mostly non-black, they would think they are justified in saying the word if their favorite white-passing celebrity can. Because yes, although she is half black, to an average onlooker who doesn't know her, they would think that she's white. The black social justice warrior wanted to say that she could say it because despite her other half, at the end of the day she is a black woman, and to strip her of her right to say a word that we've reclaimed is almost like stripping her of half of her identity.
But then I really thought about it. The usage of the "n-word' has so many nuances. Like, what if someone is a quarter black, like Cardi B, are they allowed to use the word? Because we can use the same justification for them as we can use for Halsey. Furthermore, can Africans use the word, even if the word was only used against African Americans? Is there a particular percentage of black that you can be to really use the word? And what if you're fully black, yet still white passing... are you still allowed to use the word even if other people wouldn't see you as black?
That's when I told him, "Maybe no one should say the 'n-word.'" And I know that kind of struck him by surprise, but the more I started to think about it, the more it made sense to me. If it's a word that no one but black people can use, and if it's so offensive, why are us black people even using it?
Honestly, it's just my opinion, but I think you can't reclaim a word with so much history. I feel like it's different with women, who reinvented the meaning of and became empowered by "bitch" or members of the LGBTQ+ community reclaiming the word "queer." Because although yes, those words have been used to oppress and discriminate against certain groups, I feel like the 'n-word' has terrible connotations that span across centuries. The 'n-word' has been used to systematically, institutionally, and personally degrade, enslave, and inhibit black people from reaching their full potential in society. The word itself has been used to dehumanize blacks and make them believe that they are "less than" any other race.
It's a word with so much history, hurt, and torment behind it, and I feel like it's not something we can reclaim and make into something positive. And I thought what the arguments that can be used against my opinion... like maybe, this is the one thing people have, so why try and take it away from us? or black people have been using it to talk to other black people for a while now, saying it is no different than slaves calling each other that.
And I think those arguments are completely valid. But back then, black people used it to refer to other black people because they legitimately saw each other as less than because that's what the slave masters wanted them to think. And while yes, black people have had a lot of things taken away from us, I think that we as a people can't thrive while still calling each other something that was used to dehumanize us (and still used in some places) for so long.
Again, it's just my opinion, but it's something that I've given a lot of thought to. There's no time nor place to use the word, whether it connotes to something negative or positive. Maybe we should all just agree that this is a particular word that can't be reclaimed and can't be rebranded. As long as racism and prejudice exist, we won't really ever get away from the true context or meaning of the word. You can't take out an "-er" and slap an "-a" at the end and believe the word is OK to use now.
Maybe it's time to leave the word in the past, where it rightfully belongs.