Saturday, April 2, 2011

"The N-word": I know I can't use it; I don't want to use it, but why?

Earlier this week while commenting on the post “‘Nigger’ Versus ‘Nigga’: The Contextual Framework of a Historical Term,” I found myself struggling to find understanding because of realization of my own limitations due to my positioning. What I realized was that although I knew the use of this word was bad and disagreed with its use completely, I could never know the true gravity of its use. The reason for this is embedded in the fact that as a white male, I have had the privilege of belonging the most generic category that in larger terms has always been recognized as the norm. But where does the strong tug inside me come even when I try to type “the n-word” that keeps me from even spelling it out on paper?

I began thinking about this and one solution I thought of was that it a result of my own socialization to be a racially sensitive white male. What this means is that I had been told by my parents and those around me that the use of this word was unacceptable before I really had even learned the word. The word never had a chance to become a part of my vocabulary because it was introduced to me maybe in a book or on TV in which case the medium was either educational (even covertly) as to the negative aspects of the word or if it was used negatively my parents told me not to use the word. These lessons or instructions may have been accompanied with a story of someone else’s struggle with the use of the word, but more likely a broad stroke in regards to the negative connotation historically of the word.

Regardless of how my socialization occurred, the way that I feel that this lesson was internalized was in an “inner-directed” manner, which means that when I interact in my world today, I do not even consider the use of this word due to a tug at my inner morality. Like I said, I could not even bring my self to spell out the word in my first post and even in this one I justified my use of the “n-word” in the first sentence because it is quoted as a title. One thing I would like to point out here before I precede with my question is that I am not trying to come across like I am on a high horse by any means through my lack of use of this word. Instead, I am questioning this inner drive and examining it because in reality, I cannot ever fully comprehend why “the n-word” is so bad. I have never been the subject of the racism that follows the use of the negative use of the word, and on the contrary, it has never been socially acceptable for me to use the word in a lighter manner like I have heard it used. My only personal interaction with the word where it was said to me was by a black co-worker of mine at a restaurant who called everyone on the staff (white or black, including myself) by the "n-word" in the same way that I would use the word "bro" or "man." This did not bother me but rather left me very confused. He told me it was no big deal and not to worry about it, just never say it back. I kind of just accepted what he said as authority on the subject because he controlled the situation as the producer of language and its meaning in our interaction, and also since he was black, there was kind of an understanding that the white workers just had to take his word for it. I mean, who were we to correct him? Do I take his word for it? Do explain to him why I don't think it's okay to use even from him to other blacks and risk backlash from him as he questions who I think I am speaking out of place?

My positioning as a white male leaves me with the job to simply not use the word. I just simply know that its use is bad, but I wonder if my lack of understanding boxes me in so my only response is just to not use it. Would it be that bad if I were to type it out here in an academic context? As a white male all I know is that I am not supposed to use it, and out of a latent fear of being racist I feel like I refrain from using it and even feel uncomfortable making this post. That being said: please work with me here on this. I do not know if I completely make sense, but I am trying to put this feeling out there and just flush out some ideas to see if anyone, regardless of their own positioning, color, or sex can see where I am coming from or provide their own insight on this. Through this post I would like to help with my own/your own understanding of the use of this word and to a larger theme this idea of inner-directed action or this “moral tug” as we try to discuss our own experience with this word or this feeling (regardless of the context).


  1. More recently, the "n-word" has become accepted as a prideful term amongst the back community, much like Cesaire's transformation of the word "noir" into "negre" through the use of his poetry. Therefore, because a white person is not a member of the black community, he or she cannot use the word without it being inextricably tied to the historically derogatory definition.

  2. I agree that the word has been accepted as a prideful term for the black community, but I still agree with the post that was posted earlier. The word should not be used at all, because no matter how the word is used, the word still holds the historical significance it has held since it was created in history. People should feel un-easy about writing it down on paper, and saying it out loud because the meaning still holds the same as it did since it was first used in history.

  3. Jack,

    This is a very insightful post - I know that I would be uncomfortable writing it as well. Your comment that you can never truly understand the full meaning of the n-word because you can never be a real target of it resonated with me. It's something that I guess I've always felt but never put into words.

    In regards to your coworker who used the n-word toward you, I understand your discomfort in questioning his behavior, although I believe that if someone calls you something you always have the right to express your disagreement with it.

  4. GREAT POST ! I do think this is a very complex understanding of the word nigger/nigga. It is different understandings and concepts of it even across the black community. Doing away with is the ideal way to go about it but THE REALITY is ...its not going anywhere. Just as race isnt going anywhere. I have had discussions about the word nigger with others aside from my last post. Although I dont use it as just as frequently as others I grew up around, I do understand their use of the word. But there are many strives in the African American community in different directions to change the meaning of the word. One interesting attempt of the transformation of the word is Nas: N.I.G.G.E.R : cHECK IT OUT

  5. I really enjoyed your post. As an African American I hate the word. I never use it & like you I took it upon myself to make that decision. In my community, the word is seen and used as a way to take back the power, but when it all comes down to it, the word originated out of something terrible and should not be used.


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