Why I can use the N-word and you can’t
Why do black people get to say the N-word and non-black people can’t? I hate hearing this question because the answer should be fairly obvious to a thinking person. Now, I know there are people who think no one should use such an offensive word and your objection is noted. And if you’re sensitive to offensive words, then you probably should stop here.
Above all else, context matters. A black guy greeting another black guy with, “What’s up, nigga?” is different from a non-black person saying, “I hate niggers.” Some blacks have appropriated the offensive word “nigger” and use it as “nigga” to mean something entirely different than the pejorative that a racist intends. Obviously a black person isn’t trying to insult another black person with the term because that would make no sense.
We often allow groups to use words or self-deprecating humor that would raise eyebrows if someone outside of the group did it. We instinctively get this.
In 1987, President Ronald Reagan told a joke on a live mic that implied Irish people were stupid. Reagan added, “See, I can tell that, being Irish. I can’t tell ethnic jokes except if they’re Irish now.” What if he’d told a black joke or a Jewish joke?
Years ago, Bravo TV aired a show called, “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” where five gay men gave fashion, decorating and cooking tips to straight men. There’s also a gay rights activist group called Queer Nation. Using the Q word in the context of talking about the show or group is acceptable. Calling a gay couple on the street a couple of queers is not. Likewise with the group “Dykes on Bikes,” a lesbian motorcycle group that usually rides in gay pride parades. They’ve taken a traditionally offensive slur and owned it. It doesn’t give you the right to call lesbians dykes. And if you’re straight I’d steer clear of using the term “fag hag” to describe women who love to hang out with gay guys.
This pass that we give to groups in poking fun at themselves would be wildly out of line if an outsider did it. In his comedy, “Borat,” comedian Sacha Baron Cohen included a scene of a faux race called “The Running of the Jew” where people wore costumes of Jews with huge noses. Mel Brooks included a gay dance number called “Springtime for Hitler” in his movie, “The Producers.” They get away with this humor because they’re Jewish.
Comedian George Lopez frequently pokes stereotypic fun at Latinos both in his stand up act and on the sitcom he used to do. Like other Latino comics, he can perform such material with little fear of any blowback because he’s a member of that ethnic group.
Likewise, Geri Jewell and Josh Blue are two comics with cerebral palsy who regularly poke fun at people with disabilities. If a non-disabled comedian centered an act on people with cerebral palsy or those in a wheelchair, few people would be comfortable laughing at that material.
Groups using self-deprecating humor or seizing upon insults and reinterpreting them occur all the time. But only the N-word seems to receive close scrutiny or outrage. No one is chastising Sacha Baron Cohen for his anti-Semitic humor. We get it.
The NFL is reportedly considering adopting a new rule that would penalize a team 15 yards if a player uses the N word on the field. That’s an asinine rule. We’ve got NFL refs who can barely officiate a game and we want them to be word police, too? The league shouldn’t be in the business of monitoring the words players use on the field. Context should rule the day. If someone is saying anything in a taunting or disrespectful manner then a referee can already call an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. But if a defensive back breaks up a pass for a touchdown and a teammate slaps him on the butt and says, “Good play, my nigga!” where’s the offense? Who has been offended? We may not like the word but in that context, no one is intending to offend.
In some ways, using the N-word is another form of male bonding. Male bonding frequently is a matter of jocular insults. While playing sports, or in the bar, at a party or other social situations men often engage in salty language and derision with no ill intent. Sometimes that language is racial as well. I have a 38-year friendship with a white guy named Dan. If we pick up the phone and call each other, “What up, bitch?” is a standard greeting. While hanging out with friends who were mostly black and Latino we often referred to Dan as our “token white guy.” My friend Jesse, a Latino, and I would often trade racially tinged barbs.
Again, it’s the context. We’re friends. We understand that we’re not racists or else we wouldn’t be hanging out together.
This interracial familiarity can backfire. People in interracial relationships sometimes use slurs and stereotype humor that wouldn’t fly outside the confines of the relationship. White reality star Tamra Barney of the “Real Housewives of Orange Country” referred to her Latino husband as a “beaner” on the show. Fans cried foul and she apologized. What flies behind closed doors in their relationship flew into a brick wall in public.
If you’re still unclear as to why some blacks feel they can use the word “nigga” and non-black folks cannot, just imagine that you’ve had a big fight with your mother and you come to me and say, “My mother is a total bitch. She needs to shut up!” If I reply, “Yep, she’s a bitch and is always running her fat mouth!” you’d want to punch me in the mouth. You saying something about your own mother is a line I cannot cross.
Of course anyone can use the N-word if they choose. They probably should sign up for Obamacare first. What I’m saying is they just must be prepared for the consequences. It’s always a risk for someone outside of a group to use such a slur in public. It can be a health risk or a financial risk or a reputation breaker.
Many white celebrities have used the N-word publicly and lived to regret it. Think of Michael Richards, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, Gwyneth Paltrow, Mel Gibson, Duane “Dog” Chapman, Mark Fuhrman, Jesse James, Paris Hilton, Charlie Sheen, Paula Deen and Madonna.
White rapper Eminem never uses the N-word in his raps even though he’s the biggest selling rap artist of all time and has street cred with African-Americans, he’d probably be given a pass. But he’s smart enough to know that some blacks wouldn’t like it and it’s heat he doesn’t want to have. When old tapes surfaced of him using the word in underground rap battles before he became famous, he quickly apologized.
The important thing to remember is that many groups use offensive language and self-deprecating humor among their group. Someone outside that group using the same words and phrases are suspect because they haven’t had the shared experiences that those inside the group have had. Groups feel that they’ve “earned” the right to use that language and remarks while outsiders haven’t, especially if those outsiders have a history of persecuting them. Right or wrong, that’s the sentiment.
But… even when a black person says the N-word, it can still be inappropriate and offensive. Rob Carmona found that out when a jury ruled against him in a civil suit last year in a case where he, a black man, used the N-word eight times while chastising two African-American employees. Again, context matters. These weren’t people socializing after work. This was a boss on the job using the word in a derogatory context.
So the three things to remember when it comes to using the N-word are, number one, context matters. Number two, it helps to be black if you’re going to use it. Number three? See number one.
Finally, I’ve got to quote the late great George Carlin: “I get tired of people talking about bad words and bad language. Bullshit. It’s the context that makes them good or bad. For instance, you take the word ‘nigger.’ There is nothing wrong with the word ‘nigger’ in and of itself. It’s the racist asshole that’s using it that you ought to be concerned about. We don’t care when Richard Pryor or Eddie Murphy say it. Why? Because we know they’re not racists! They’re niggers! Context. We don’t mind their context because we know they’re black!”