If you aren’t black, don’t say it

There are an infinite number of reasons why, and I’ve picked three.

by Faith Andrews-O'Neal, Opinion Editor

This is extremely hard for me to write. It may not sound quite like my tone in real life or even previous posts. I may sound incredibly pedantic and preachy, or slightly exasperated. I sat at this computer staring at the screen for several days (which is incredibly unlike me, seeing that I am a known procrastinator), attempting to write something beautiful, eloquent and well-said. Instead, what left my mind and sits on this screen is a borderline stream of consciousness turned coherent by my due diligence, and the aid of my wonderful editor (hi Olivia, thanks!). The issue that has frozen my fingers for the umpteenth time (as I’ve attempted to write this particular piece since the creation of this blog in 2017) revolves around a single word. There is no need to spell it out much further, but to make sure we’re all on the same page, I’m referring to the infamous “n-word”. 

The word is one we all know. It starts with an n, ends with a vowel or a consonant, and carries a weight loaded by centuries of violent oppression. I won’t say it here. You know what I mean. If you’ve listened to Drake or Kendrick, you’ve heard it. If you’ve been to a Teresian after-party or a particularly rowdy car ride, you’ve heard it there too. 

Growing up, this word was a major point of contention for me. Around middle school, blackness became a commodity, a tangible object passed around and shared like a Vineyard Vines quarter-zip or a Vera Bradley wallet. As a result, this very word was spoken. I remember (and continue to engage in) many debates involving why this word should only be used by black people. However, as I stated in my previous blog, I am fatigued. Instead of using the same argument to no avail, I will simply direct those requesting to the very post you, dear reader, are purusing at the moment. There are many reasons why nonblack people should avoid this word at all costs. Many have been covered extensively by sociologists and Huffington Post articles and can be easily found on Google. These are what I can add without feeling incredibly redundant, while also not writing a novel because nobody has the time. So, without further ado, here is why I, and many other people, believe that the use of the n-word by nonblack people is wrong. 

Reason #1: I said so. This may seem highly entitled of me, or reminiscent of a parent asking you to clean your room. However, when it comes to anti-black racism, if a black person is saying that something is racist, I recommend you respect their boundaries. This is me, a black person, saying that if you are not black, saying the “n-word” is racist. I could say that in an infinite number of different, more poetic ways. The sentiment remains. There is no need for me to go in-depth as to why the word is racist. There are many a thinkpiece and historical brief to do so for me. However, due to the commonplace knowledge that slavery exists, and the fact that due to slavery, anti-black racism exists, this word should not be said by nonblack people. I am not the ultimate authority on this subject; I don’t think there is one single person. However, if any black person finds something to be racist, abide by their terms, at least in their space. 

Reason #2- Reclamation exists and is not hypocrisy. The primary argument I see used to justify nonblack use of this word is that “Black people say it all the time!” However, this is where reclamation comes into play. Between black people, the word may be used colloquially, or as a term of greeting. This is our taking back a word used to marginalize and “other” us, justifying violence and dehumanization against us. However, this particular word can only be reclaimed by black people, as it was not used in this systemic sense against other marginalized groups. If you are a white person saying this word casually, there is no reclamation: only a harkening to an even-darker era of history for black people. If you are a nonblack person of color saying the n-word you are still not reclaiming. If you are a nonblack person saying it even without the hard “r”, you are using a racial slur you have no business using. If you are a nonblack person who can not bleep a single word while listening to Drake, then you should turn off the radio.

Reason #3- It is incredibly difficult in predominantly white spaces for black people to be the one dissenting voice about race, which is why it is important you hold yourself accountable. I have been in many (too many) events and situations where this has come up. Whether this is a concert or a birthday party, at least one person feels entitled to either saying the word or asking me to explain why they can’t. The answer, to be frank, is simple. I’m black, they are not, and I am saying not to use it. However, in most of those conversations, I am expected to be nuanced, sympathetic and patient; firm enough for them to know that I do mean it, but not too stern as to “kill the vibe”, even though mine was dead the second the word was brought up. I spend a lot of my time in spaces where I am the only, or one of few, black people. Not all black people care about this word being said. Not all black people feel comfortable asking people not to use it. If you are in a space with black people, the safe thing to do is to just avoid it in general.

I wish this post was unnecessary, but it isn’t. I wish that I had the time and energy to explain this to every single person who wishes to understand why this matters. I know I don’t. However, if this stops even a single person from asking the nearest black person for a “pass”, then I’d consider this a success.