Why Black People Can Use the N-Word: A Perspective
Why is it okay for African Americans to use the N-word but not others (or mostly not others)? Isn’t it racist to say that only some people can use the word while others can’t? Doesn’t this create some unfair double-standard?
These are some of the questions one often hears in a discussion about the N-word and permissible use. There are really at least two questions that should be addressed. First, what is going on linguistically? Uses of the word by African Americans typically aren’t offensive, so-called appropriated uses, whereas uses by others (with some exceptions) generally are offensive. What explains that difference?
The second question involves the morality of those uses: Should African Americans address each other with the N-word? To be clear, we are focusing here on a narrow part of the phenomena, namely, those camaraderie uses of the word. As was pointed out in an earlier post, the word has varied shades and uses in the mouth of African Americans, not all of them positive. In this post I mainly focus on the first question, while saying a few things briefly about the second at the end.
That African Americans (and some Latinos) are able to use the N-word freely while others are not is, I take it, an obvious fact. In one particular form, the N-word carries connotations of camaraderie. The expression is used, as rapper Q-Tip has pontificated, “as a term of endearment.” However, it is also widely known that this use is typically not available to non-black language users. This is illustrated poignantly in this scene from Rush Hour where Lee (Jackie Chan) greets an African American bartender with the phrase, “What’s up my nigga?” essentially mimicking the way Carter (Chris Tucker) had addressed the same bartender moments earlier. For some, the use of an ‘a’ on the end of the expression marks a distinct contrast with the ‘er’ ending, the former denoting endearment or camaraderie and the latter racism. In spite of using the ‘a’ ending, Lee’s greeting was not well received, resulting in a brawl between him, the bartender and other African American patrons.
So, what exactly was the difference between Carter’s use of the word and Lee’s? In order to say what the difference is we need to think about what makes terms like this, when used derogatorily, offensive. The obvious place to start is to say the N-word means something derogatory. The basic idea is that when some person addresses another by the expression, he or she is attributing certain characteristics and/or traits to the statement’s target. In the case of the N-word, one might think that when someone (and I am talking about cases where the speaker is being derogatory) addresses another with the N-word, the speaker is saying something along the lines of blacks are inferior because they are black.
If this is how normal derogatory uses of the N-word work, then how do we explain appropriated uses? The most sensible thing to say is that appropriated uses have a different meaning from the derogatory use, like ‘buddy’ or ‘friend’. But notice this doesn’t tell us why Lee was not able to use the term in this sense. If the N-word has at least two senses, i.e. a derogatory one and a neutral one, then why can’t non-African Americans use it? I suggest there is a better way to understand what makes slur terms offensive in general and ultimately provides a way of explaining their appropriated uses.
I think that slurs are prohibited terms whose occurrences are offensive. When enough people (or the right person or persons) say a word is not appropriate for referring to a particular group, then that word becomes a slur. However, the prohibition is not absolute. It does allow for some exceptions. Among those exceptions are non-derogatory uses by members of the targeted group. Immediately we can see why African Americans (and certain others) can use the N-word for camaraderie purposes while non-African Americans typically cannot. It is just built into the exception clause that the former can and the latter cannot.
This explanation shows us why some can and others can’t use the N-word. But it doesn’t yet tell us whether those who can use it should use it. I think this question is difficult and requires careful attention. Those who think African Americans should not use the N-word often argue that doing so perpetuates non permitted uses by non-African Americans, the idea being “if they use it, why can’t we?” Others, like Bill Cosby, claim that uses of the N-word are a kind of self-degradation by blacks, which illustrates a certain lack of self-regard or racial pride. I’m not sure either one of these claims holds up. The first claim, namely, that uses of the N-word by African Americans may cause others to use it freely, isn’t very convincing. One might think that even if it were true, this doesn’t give non-African Americans license to use the word. They are not permitted to infer that it is okay for them to use the N-word just because they hear African Americans using it. The Cosby claim, on the other hand, may be true for some (that is, uses of it by some blacks may indeed indicate a lack of self-respect), but it is not clear that it is true for most African Americans. We don’t have good reason to believe it is.
On the other end of the debate are those who think uses of the N-word by African Americans are totally fine. ‘Nigga’ in the mouths of African Americans isn’t derogatory, at least in this camaraderie sense, and so is perfectly legitimate and okay. However, I’m not sure I totally buy this line either. I’m an African American, and I often experience a strange feeling of queasiness whenever I’m riding in a car with a white friend and a song by a black artist is playing in which ‘nigga’ is repeated often. I can’t explain it, but there is almost a feeling of embarrassment. Whether this means that I think the N-word shouldn’t be used I’m not sure, but it does let me know that the answer to the question can’t ignore the social consequences of saying it.
Luvell Anderson is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Philosophy at Rutgers University. He works on the semantics and ethics of racial slurs, racist jokes, and offensive pictures.