Recently a video of Ta-Nehisi Coates eloquently responding to a White student’s question of how to respond when her friends say the n-word has gone viral with reference to the way he responded to the question. While I admire Coates’ response and aspire to one day be able to respond to such questions so calmly and perfectly, my concern is with the fact that the question was asked at all.
For me, this is a critical concern due to the amount of times I have witnessed this internal desire that White and non-Black people seem to have to say the n-word. (Even well-meaning ones.) It’s almost as if they ask the question hoping that one day a Black person will say it’s okay. In my opinion, the student who posed the question to Coates either a) wanted some praise for her attempts to address her friends’ use of the racial epithet b) wanted to hear her own voice or ask a question for the sake of it, or c) wanted Coates to somehow reassure her that the use of the word is okay.
Coates poses some crucial questions and points for reflection. Some additional underlying questions that I have are:
- Why would one associate with people who have such a desire to use a word that everyone in America knows the historical context of and are socialized to understand why it’s so offensive?
- Why do White people want to use it so badly? I mean I really could do without it.
- Will Black people always be responsible for convincing White people they should not have a desire to say the n-word, as Coates does in the video?
This past summer, I operated music for a series of teenage parties and in honoring the request for Kendrick Lamar’s M.A.A.D. City, I quickly realized that this group of nearly 200 kids took it upon themselves to rap the word although the song was edited, therefore the n-word wasn’t even being said in the song. The scene resembled the following video, which also occurred recently:
I was even more appalled when I (a Black woman) was questioned (by a Latino man) as to why I wouldn’t continue playing the song in the following weeks after the incident.
In addition, I’ve observed several videos on snapchat of White people at rap concerts saying “nigga” quite unapologetically arguably proudly. They clearly do it because they know there’s so many of them that no one can do anything about it. Do they just listen to rap so they can say nigga and feel justified? The genuine appreciation for the genre really lacks as can be shown in the frequency at which pop and rap/hip hop are interchanged, but that can be a separate post.
There was also the recent episode of “The Read” in which a gay, White male asked the hosts, who have jokingly self-identified as Black identity extremists whether he should honor his partner’s request of calling him the term during sex. Certainly, he knew what they were going to say in response, as he apologized for being a White person writing in in the first place.
All of these examples (and the countless ones I omitted) bring us back to the aforementioned Coates video and his beautifully worded response.
The n-word is the most offensive thing one can say in the presence of a person of African descent. This knowledge alone should make it so that there really is no reason to ask.. If you’re not Black and are faced with deciding whether or not it’s okay for you or your friends to use the n-word. It is not. Don’t ask.. Just don’t do it and disassociate from those who do. As asserted by Coates, you should have no desire to use it. And if you truly had no desire to use it, you simply wouldn’t and you wouldn’t have to ask.
It is likely that there will never be a period in our lifespans where non-Black people will be welcomed or permitted to say the n-word and that should be okay. In fact, not saying it should be the preference regardless of what society says.