Who Gets to Use the N-Word?

Sophia Lewis-Mussa, Photo Editor

It is not just White people who need to refrain; it is any group that cannot claim membership in the Black community.”


   It is painful to watch the students of UC High, as well as many other schools, use a word, tethered in so much history and suffering, with such obliviousness and ignorance. The N-word has been reclaimed and defanged by the African American community since its origins in the slavery era, but through its use in widespread and popular music genres, it has been normalized. Because of this, people of all varieties and skin colors have sought to adopt it, completely disregarding the tragic and inhumane history behind it. So the question is, who gets to use the N-word, and why?

   According to the African American Registry, the N-word was established as a derogatory name in the early 1800s, and soon after was used to describe weapons, work, and even food. “Historically, n*gger defined, limited, made fun of and ridiculed all Blacks. It was a term of exclusion, a verbal reason for discrimination,” said Authors Phil Middleton and David Pilgrim. In the article, various terms associated with the N-word were said to have been used to “…strengthen the stereotype of the lazy, stupid, dirty, worthless nobody” that they believed embodied any and every Black person (aaregistry.org).

   Since the N-word is so offensive, why does anyone use it? According to the International Journal of Society, Culture and Language, for the African Americans who do use it, it is both a marker of in-group identity and a way to reclaim the power of the word and the terms of its use (ijscl.net). However, the use of the N-word being so liberal within this specific community has raised questions amongst many. Can white people use it too? Can other non-Black people of color use it? No, and no. Bestselling Author Ta-Nehisi Coates eloquently explained why not when he stated, “My wife, with her girlfriend, will use the word, ‘b*tch’ […] I do not join in. I don’t do that, and more importantly, I don’t have a desire to do that.” Coates goes on to say this response should apply to derogatory words within the African American community, or any community since words that are derogatory outside a particular group are merely ironic within that group (vox.com).

   It is not just White people who need to refrain; it is any group that cannot claim membership in the Black community, because they don’t share that particular history and life experience. This shouldn’t be a difficult concept to grasp; we all recognize that certain words are “okay” to use between particular individuals and within particular groups. Common sense and decency dictate that we refrain from using words that insult and offend others.

   According to Junior Grace Speicher, “Now [African Americans] are trying to take [the N-word] back and use it as an empowering word, but when people from other races are using it, how is it empowering?” This kind of questioning only raises more concern as to why non-Black people would use the N-word, because there is no positive stigma in it for them.

   The N-word is a brutal and oppressive term that shouldn’t be used by anyone other than those of African descent. It doesn’t matter how much its use in music may normalize the word, or how frequently it’s said amongst Black teenagers. This word will always be remembered for its severity and provocation, as it should be.