4 Reasons White People Can’t Use the N-Word (No Matter What Black Folks are Doing)

White people don’t like being told that stuff’s off limits to us.

At least that’s my theory for why this question is still being asked:

White Person: “If Black people can just throw the N-word around all the time, why is it not okay for White people to use that word?”

So in as concise a way as possible, I want to answer this question as clearly as I can for all the White people still asking it.

4 Reasons White People Can’t Use the N-Word (No Matter What Black Folks are Doing)

1.  We lost the privilege.  You know that whole, you know, 600 year time period when White people were buying and selling Black people as chattel?  Well, remember how that whole system was enforced by a violent system of repression whereby Black slaves who did not act the way the White folks wanted them to were beaten and murdered?  Oh, and remember that time after slavery when Black people were locked in a system called Jim Crow that used a similar fear of violence and repression to keep Black people in “their place?”  Well, in the midst of all that shit, there was a word invented by White people as a pejorative for Black folks.  It was used just about every time a Black person was whipped, chained, beaten, insulted, spit upon, raped, lynched, or otherwise humiliated and mistreated by White folks.

Thus, I don’t care how much White folks want to use that word.  I don’t care how unfair you think it is that someone else gets to use it when we don’t.  Our people gave up the privilege to use that word the moment we invented it as a tool of oppression.

2.  Why the hell should we get a say in the conversation about that word?  There is a lively debate in African American communities between those who think it’s time to “Bury the N-Word” and those who think it can be reclaimed as a word of camaraderie and brotherhood/sisterhood.

That is a healthy conversation, and it’s a part of a long history of marginalized communities attempting to “reclaim” words that were once oppressive.  No matter how long that conversation goes on in Black communities, though, White people do not get to take part.  I’m sorry.  As the ones from whom the word of violence and oppression must be reclaimed, we do not get to have a word in that conversation.  Plain and simple.

3.  Why should everything be in bounds to us?  The question being asked is, in essence, the epitome of White Privilege.  As White folks, we tend to think that every door should be open to us, every conversation should be ours, every space should welcome us.  We think this way because, when it comes to racialized spaces, that tends to be the case.  We have the privilege of having our voices heard and our presence recognized in just about every space there is.  Thus, we HATE IT when we are told that we are not actually welcome in a conversation.  But here’s what we need to understand: we’re the only people that get the privilege of access to whatever racialized space we want.  White Women can hopefully begin to understand this when you think about the ways in which you are denied voice and space by dominant Men, but White people need to understand this.  Just because we are not welcome to use one word in the English language does not mean that we are being discriminated against.  It means that we, rightfully, need to shut up and listen.

4. It’s not, in fact, a double standard.  It’s a standard:

So . . . White people . . . Can we put this to rest?

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56 thoughts on “4 Reasons White People Can’t Use the N-Word (No Matter What Black Folks are Doing)

  1. Jamie,

    I enjoy reading your blog from time to time and I believe your words are deeply needed. The fabric of our society today consists of many tears, rips and burns from our history. Countless genocides have been committed in the name of religion, indifference and ignorance which have ultimately left residual psychological harm. Although the physical injustices and public displays of hate are no longer as visible as they once were, the psychological damage to each individual (regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, occupation…) still exists. Using words such as the n-word not only marginalizes individuals, but attacks the growth and development we as a society have been working towards.

    Words are powerful, and they exist because mankind has created them. No matter how mankind may evolve, the significance of particular words will always hold a heavy weight. Whether the ending of the word has shifted from “ger” to “gga” the root of the word, and its impact on history, doesn’t disappear.

    And although I’m sad to admit the truth, it’s a fact that many Caucasian/white people hold a level of privilege, or entitlement over the rest of the world. Through my eyes I’ve seen the level of entitlement many Caucasians hold over others because of their melanin content. White individuals believing they have the authority, or power to say what they wish (including the n-word) and over whom they wish is both astonishing and baffling.

    In the end I believe that words such as this word would be best remembered, but never used. I am a white male, and so I hold no governance over those who identify themselves as “African American” or “Black” — let alone, do I hold any control of people who are described as being “white, brown or yellow.”

    And with that acknowledgment I may be ignorant to the reasons why anyone, of any race, would continue the use of this word. It may be of significance, or healing that this word needs to be continued. Yet, the damage and pain this word has caused throughout history commands that I take a personal vow to eradicate this word from my own vocabulary. There is little reason as to why this word should ever be iterated again – especially by those naive or unassociated by its meaning.

  2. […] seems to go unchecked an awful lot.  So going along with my posts on White people using the “n-word” and on the word “bitch,” here goes my […]

  3. I’ve been saying this for years, but it’s refreshing to see someone white actually getting it. And by the way you stated it so succintly that I couldn’t have put it any better myself. Thanks for being a much needed voice for the African American community and proving that there are some white people out there who actually give a shit about what we go through on a daily basis. Bravo!

    • Unfortunately you speak to the heart of the matter. White folks have heard people of Color saying these things for years, but we, on the whole, choose not to listen. It is sad that it isn’t until a White person says it that White folks manage to hear it.

      Thank you for your kind comment!

      In Peace.

  4. […] 5. I get really tired of the conversation with White folks about why they can’t use the N-Word when Black people can, so I can’t imagine how Black people feel about this “injustice.”  Just the other day I tried to explain to a White woman why it is absurd to hope that one day her White son would be able to use that word with his Black friends.  In that argument, I brought up the piece that comes in at number 5: 4 Reasons White People Can’t Use the N-Word (No Matter What Black Folks are Doing). […]

  5. […] usually asks why Black folks are allowed to use the “n word” but he’s not (read my response here).  Then a White young person usually asks, “How do you feel about Affirmative Action? […]

  6. Do you agree that if a white person uses the n word they should be violently attacked? I have seen this happen many times growing up and living in Baltimore. I get called honkey and cracker on a daily basis and just let it roll off my shoulder because I know we live in a world that will always be inhabited by rude, ingnorant people. I believe that people should just grow up and stop letting words hurt them. I am not so arronagont to believe that I “own” a certain word and can stop a certain group of people from using it. It’s people like that justify a violence for using a couple of taboo words.

    • I do not believe that any person ever should be violently attacked for any reason. That said, you seem to be implying that a White person calling a Black person the N-word is the same thing as a Black person calling a White person a honkey or cracker. While the latter is definitely rude and bigoted, it is by NO means the same thing. There is no comparable word that a White person can be called by a Black person because there is no comparable history of violence and oppression of White people at the hands of Black people.

      White people have NO business saying to Black people that they should “grow up and stop letting words hurt them” when we have no way of contextualizing and understanding the violence, repression, and oppression that is carried in those 6 simple letters.

      This is reflective of one of the major misunderstandings of racism that White people push in our society: that racism is simply disliking or mistreating someone because of the color of their skin. Racism, in fact, is something much bigger than that. Racism in the United States (and many other contexts) describes a system of oppression whereby White people have systematically oppressed and denied the humanity, agency, and rights of people of Color. Interpersonal mistreatment because of skin color is a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself.

      • I honestly do believe that that any racial slur is equal but your bias is apparent. I didn’t say just black people should grow up, everyone needs to learn when you let words invoke anger you are giving power to those words. I not sure but I thought that treating someone differently based upon race was the definition racism. Reacting with anger or violence whenever a white person uses the nword but not when a black person does is racist.

      • First, your post is assuming that the black community is fully aware of the pain and oppression that occurred during the time of slavery. i can assure you no one living has any direct knowledge of personal experience of slavery. When you speak of the feelings of this issues it is unfair for you to describe the emotions because no one you speak of was actually there.
        second, your argument is only support more racism, the word nigger is used so openly that it is no longer offensive to most people who live in inner cities. you have actors, comedians, movies, shows, music all in the face of the whole country using this word. so we can buy the music, buy the videos and the clothing and support the actors, but you can not use the word nigger unless you are black? sound like pure racism to me?

      • Ken, a few things.

        Your first post assumes a few things. First, it assumes that the N-word was ONLY used as an oppressive word during the time in US history when it was legal to hold slaves and ignores the ways in which it was used throughout the 20th century and continues to be used in the 21st century as a pejorative that, when used by White people against Black people, carries a weight of oppression to which there is no comparable word that can be used against White people. If you think the word no longer holds any power, please read this incredible piece that was published only a few days ago: http://www.salon.com/2013/07/04/the_n_word_on_the_4th_of_july/ Second, it assumes that there are not any legacies of oppression from slavery – that slavery just ended and that was that! Whew! Glad we took care of that whole slavery thing! Oh wait . . . Then came the racist violence of reconstruction, then Jim Crow, then the prison industrial complex that continues to disproportionately victimize Black and Brown men as a system of racist control (see The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander for a full citation of this issue). Beyond those FORMAL systems of racist structural violence, your point ignores the trans-generational trauma that racism hands down to people of Color in this country to which there is NO comparison for White folks (for a full citation of the issue, see Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome by Dr. Joy DeGruy Leary).

        My point is that your comment is WILDLY short sighted.

        Your second post also assumes that it is comparable for a Black person to work to reclaim the N-word as for a White person to used the N-word in reference to a Black person. They are wholly different things, and if the two videos that are a part of the blog do not get that through to you, then there is no hope because you cannot understand nuance in language.

        As for your comment that it is “racism” for some people to be allowed to use a word but for others NOT to be able to use that word, I will address that comment (as I have in countless OTHER comments) in my response to your comment that is further down the page.

  7. Justin,

    To demonstrate the absurdity of claiming that all racial slurs are the same, let me ask you a question:
    Would it be the same thing for a Black man living in bondage to call an overseer a “cracker” as it would be for the overseer to call that Black man the N-word?

    It’s an issue of power! The word cracker even stems from power, as it refers to the man who cracks the whip! In the words of Louis CK, when we’re called “cracker,” we should likely be reacting like this:
    “Ruined my day . . . Bringing me back to owning land and people.”

    To say that racism is simply treating someone differently because of their race removes all of the words connection to systems of power and oppression. If that’s all it were, racism wouldn’t really be that bad of a thing. It would be comparable to any other insult – calling someone the N-word and calling someone an asshole would be the same thing. But they’re not the same thing because one happens within the context of a system of oppression of Black people at the hands of White people.

    To simply water it down to no different than any other form of disrespect is really quite dangerous and is, in fact, a major obstacle in overcoming the true racism that is built into this country’s foundations.

  8. Why do African Americans want to hear that word at all? Not just from white people but themselves? It seems idiotic and disrespectful to call your friend a name one that was your ancestors last word they heard before they were murdered.

    • There is a vibrant conversation about that word (see number 2) within African American communities, and it is not the place of White folks (or anyone other than African Americans and Blacks) to dictate how that conversation should look.

  9. Your mind and heart are both beautifully informed, cultured, acknowledging, understanding, open-minded, educated and awesome. Bravo!

  10. A lot can be said about this thing. Thing is, it is history. Not to be clinged to, but to be learned from. Black and white people should just let it go. People using the N word today, are not using it in the context of history. People in general, should just “forget” the word, black people also. They keep it alive, forcing their role unto the rest of the world as victims. Let…it…go!

    Now, I don’t live in the US, so I have little to no knowledge on how it is there. But here where I live in Europe, white people have to walk on egg-shells around coloured people, because every tiny bit of harsh words against a coloured person, gets thrown up as being racist. If I tell a coloured kid in the mall to shut up because they are loud and makes a general disturbance, the mom don’t tell me to mind my own business, no, I am automatically racist because I said it to someone not my skin-colour. In my country, the biggest racist people, are the coloured population. White people can be prosecuted for racism, coloured people can not, now, hows that for justice, because of former oppression of their ancestors. In my book, that is hypocritical. This is because of the role of coloured people always being the victims, in their mind, and how they force it upon the rest of us.

    I apologises for any grammar incorrectness, not my native language. And, my meaning may get lost in translation so to speak. I have nothing against coloured people, my family is multi-ethnic (chinese, whites, pakistans, turkish) I am just tired of certain groups in the coloured population, justifying their own racism against white people because; “they must hate us, so we must hate them mentality.”

    Peace out from Scandinavia.

    • Nobody uses the word colored anymore..start with that.

      • NAACP National Association for the Advancement of Colored People ?

      • That organization was founded in 1909 when that was the common way to refer to people of Color. Great point?

      • Ruben, maybe you can not read english, the poster clearly stated that English was not his first language and apologized for any miss used words…nothing but hate……..?

  11. It’s not that we don’t like be told that “stuff’s off limits to us,” you self-hating eunuch. We dislike the hypocritical privilege blacks enjoy in this country. It seems they can see pretty much whatever they want with impunity.

    • Your statement would be laughable if not so terribly dangerous. There is not a single measure by which Black people have privileges not enjoyed by White folks. It terrifies me to realize that there are folks such as yourself who remain willfully blind to the systems of oppression and inequality in which we live.

  12. I’m a white guy, so as Louis CK says – I really don’t have much to complain about.
    Just some open questions here. I’m not really trying to make a statement one way or another but I’m curious as to the answers to these questions.
    There are many types of slurs. Racial, religious, homophobic, et cetera. Why do you think this is the only word that fits under that umbrella that is considered “alright” for the people it identifies to say it, and no one else?
    The word “faggot” is extremely hurtful and derogatory towards gay people. Somehow they are not inclined to walk around and call each other that word! I’ve also never heard a gay musician use it in their music in the way I am describing.
    The same with other very malicious language that has been used to describe groups of people, visible minorities… I haven’t seen anyone using that language either.
    Is the answer that the n-word isn’t on the same level as other slurs, and that makes it different and okay? Is the answer purely cultural, and people should just back off and say whatever, they can say what they want?
    Think about it if you were in the shoes of a visible minority. In the past, for many years, there was a horrible word used towards you and your people. What would make you want to use it? Is there a psychological satisfaction that comes from “reclaiming” a word for yourself?
    The word originated as a neutral term describing black people, but not by black people. However, the intragroup usage of the word has a totally different context than the intergroup usage.
    I love and enjoy hip-hop and rap music, and the culture surrounding it. Can I sing along to all the lyrics of my favourite songs in diverse company? Should I be able to? Why or why not?

    • Jonah, you pose some tough questions here, and know that my responses are more likely than not reflective of my learnings from people who are experiencing oppression and wrestling with these. I cannot speak for anyone but myself, and I come from a lot of privilege.

      That said, Black people reclaiming the N-word is not the only example of oppressed and marginalized people reclaiming words that were used as pejoratives against them. You claim that you do not hear lesbian and gay folks using the term “faggot” within and amongst themselves. Just because you haven’t heard it doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lively debate in LGBTQ circles about the possibility of reclaiming the word. Check out this piece for some commentary on that: http://www.gaylesbiantimes.com/?id=10704

      Similarly, many in LGBTQ communities have worked hard over the last 20 years to “reclaim” the word Queer, turning it from a pejorative to a loving umbrella term used to describe folks who don’t identify as straight or who fall outside of traditional gender norms.

      I could offer you endless examples of other groups doing this over time, but for the sake of brevity, know that this is a complex debate.

      But here’s the deal. As I say in the piece, no matter how long the debate goes on, those whose people created the word as a hurtful slur do not get to participate in that debate and that discussion. It is not ours to have.

      The other struggle that I have in your post is the idea that it is possible for someone who has not experienced a certain type of oppression to ever put themselves in the shoes of someone who has. I don’t think it’s possible, and to do so can lead to a dangerous slippery slope of assuming we understand an oppression that we can never understand. Sure, we can empathize to the best of our ability, but we can never fully understand. Thus, it doesn’t matter what I think about whether certain words should be used if I try to put myself in the shoes of an oppressed person.

      To be clear, though, the N-word did NOT begin as a neutral word. It was a transformation of the word “Negro” that was created for the sole purpose of oppression.

      Lastly, I, too, enjoy some rap and a lot of Hip Hop. Some of my favorite artists use the N-word. However, I do not think it is ever my place to sing along and to use all of the words that they use. It is simply not my place.

      • You say that those who created the slur don’t get to use it. I did not participate in the creation of the slur. There is nobody alive today that was a slave in America. There are very few people alive that were hurt by the US Govt. for being black. Your arguments are ridiculous for this. You have every right to not say the word, but to say that it’s ok for black people to throw racial slurs at me, but not be able to do it to them is ignorant. If you think a word belongs to a group of people, you are ignorant. We live in a world of equality now. If I want to say Nigger, I can say nigger. If you want to say cracker, you can say cracker. If you want to keep me from my right to say these words, you can shut up.

      • James, generally I would just ask that you read the other comments in this section, as I address most of your points in other comments, but there is at least one thing in your comment that REALLY needs to be addressed:

        Your claim that “there are very few people alive that were hurt by the US Govt. for being black” is patently untrue. First, Jim Crow was the law of the land in much of the United States until the 1950s and 1960s, a law that was patently supported by the United States federal government. That means that any person that is older than about 50 years old lived under the tyranny of this system.

        Second, your statement ignores the ways in which the criminal justice system was transformed in the 1980s and 1990s into a system of racist control that is quite literally a recreation of Jim Crow. Only under such a system could Black men be 6 times as likely to spend time in prison on drug-related offenses despite the reality that White people are statistically more likely to deal drugs and actually consume illegal drugs at the same rate as every other race (as but one example).

        You are welcome to use the N word all you like, but know that so long as you do, it is unabashedly racist. No matter how you try to justify it with “but I was called cracker,” it is racist. I have no interest in keeping you from your right to being a racist. Please express it openly, as it allows those of us working against racism to know exactly who you are.

  13. My thoughts… and perhaps they are not welcome… but, I’ll say them anyway. I’m not going to lie that things that happened in the past are horrendous. I won’t deny that, I won’t sugarcoat it.
    But… *I* did not do that. I don’t know a single black person who was a slave. Discrimination does exist, and the people responsible for that should be prosecuted for it, and people who are discriminated against should have reparation. And that is a difficult thing to prove and/or prosecute. I don’t have any answers for that.
    Change does need to happen. But change won’t happen until ALL people feel like equals. And as long as racial groups, as a group, are held to a different standard, whether that be a better standard or a lower standard, than other races…. racism will continue to exist. Period. I am not racist. I know people who are. But I’m still lumped into that category. I have not, and would not, own a slave. But I’m still lumped into that category because of my melanin. Yeah- the same thing white people singled others out for. When we start treating people as people, have civilized discussions as opposed burning them at the stake… we will see growth and change. When we start seeing beyond color, whatever OUR skin color is, we will see growth and change.
    Quick question… do Germans have this same issue with the Jewish population? Maybe they do, and we just don’t see that here. If they don’t, however, perhaps we could look at how both the Germans and the Jewish people were able to move past that horrific period in history and begin to coexist.
    As to the “n” word… I personally think it should be anyone or noone. Regardless of the reasons that you don’t think that white people should have a say, which are legitimate, understandable reasons… it still breeds more animosity. And what is more important? Being right or having peace?

  14. Basically- my point is that it isn’t a word, it isn’t a single action. The problem is much greater, and until we can find a way that satisfies both sides of the fence… makes both groups feel heard, understood and accepted, these heated debates will continue. White people will be accused of being racist for as little as disagreeing with a policy, black people will be called reverse racist (what the heck is that?) for calling a white person racist, whether it is true or not.
    Too bad we can’t prevail over our own human nature and just exist with one another without having to worry about what others are saying, doing, or thinking.

    • justme –

      As your comments are somewhat all over the place topically, I will do my best to respond comprehensively, but some of what I will say will simply be copied from the replies to other comments in this blog that are making the same points you are.

      I’ll start with a metaphor: Imagine that I came into your home, took you and your kids hostage, and took everything you had ever worked for before beating and killing a few members of your family. Afterward, not only did no one try to prosecute me for my crime, but I was allowed to keep everything I stole and pass it down to my children, leaving you and your children with nothing while we profit and ensure trans-generational wealth at your expense. In this scenario, would you want your voices heard? Would you want justice? And in pursuing justice, do you believe that your voice should be given equal weight to the voice of the person or persons that harmed you?

      Because when you say, “until we can find a way that satisfies both sides of the fence” it presumes that we are on an equal playing field. Until we realize justice, there cannot be a “both sides of the fence” argument. A better metaphor would be to say, “Once we have dismantled a system that ensures that White people stand on the backs of Black folks economically and socially, then we can have discussions about equal voice in conversations.”

      The vast majority of your comment runs into the logical fallacy of treating race and racism as simply interpersonal experiences that happen from time to time. “Sure, racism happens, but it’s not very common any more, and those individuals who commit racism should be prosecuted” seems to be the crux of your argument. What you are ignoring, though, is that the implications of race are simply differences in the ways people look, but racism is more than that. Racism is a system.

      If in the context of our society and our institutions, race really were just the amount of melanin in our skin (as biology tells us it is), then sure, it would be no different for a White person to call a Black person that word than for a Black person to call a Black person that word. But unfortunately, we live in the context of our history and our present. We live in the context of one of the most violent and comprehensive systems of racist control that the world has ever seen. We live in the context of chattel slavery and all of the horrors that come along with it. We live in the context of lynchings and Jim Crow. We live in the context of the prison industrial complex and the widespread villainization of of people with dark skin for the profits and political will of wealthy White people. We live in the context of daily racist violence. We live in the context of the economic legacy of all of these things that makes people of Color (particularly Black people) vastly more likely to live in poverty and forces disproportionate numbers of people of Color (particularly Black people) into the alternative economy of drug trade or other “illegal” activity in order to survive. And all of this occurs to the benefit of White folks (particularly wealthy White folks, but all White folks nonetheless) at the expense of people of Color.

      Thus, this word carries a tremendous amount of weight of context, so it is not simply melanin that makes it different.

      The “Germans and Jews” question is a misnomer for a number of reasons. First, it presumes that no Jews are Germans. Second, it purports that it is in any way possible to compare the suffering of one form of oppression and genocide to another. Third, it presumes that all cultural contexts are the same. Finally, it ignores the very real ways that (in spite of pervasive and ever-present anti-Semitism that exists), many Jews have been able to become White throughout much of the world, granting them the privileges and benefits of White skin power as it exists in a series of systems that were built for and by White people for the exclusive benefits of White people.

      Finally, while neither you nor I have ever owned slaves, we (as White people – since I’m assuming you are White from the context of your comment) benefit every single day because of the system of racial oppression that was created in this country. And let us not pretend that the system of racial oppression that benefits us started and ended with slavery. As mentioned above, it continued into Jim Crow. It continues into discriminatory housing policies and hiring practices. It continues in the criminal “justice” system. We benefit every single day because this system was set up to advantage US over “them.” (see what I mean here: http://changefromwithin.org/2011/07/28/780/)

      Thus, unless we are actively standing up to dismantle those systems (of which interpersonal experiences of racism and discussions about language are simply symptoms – important symptoms but symptoms nonetheless), then we are ensuring that it continues.

      So the question then becomes: What are you doing to tear down those systems?

      • http://changefromwithin.org/2013/05/30/what-is-normal/#more-1773

        I think this article on your blog says a lot.
        Tell me, and I’m not being snarky… how does the *average* white person “forces disproportionate numbers of people of Color (particularly Black people) into the alternative economy of drug trade or other “illegal” activity in order to survive.”
        And, to me, at least, this is the attitude that will continue to promote racism, and hinder change. You’ve alluded, several times, to the wealthy white folks. Well, I can assure you, I am not a “wealthy white person”. I am only slightly less at mercy of the “wealthy white people” as anyone else. When we lump all white people into the “enemy” column, we alienate people. And, according to you, those people might be able to help, if they didn’t feel as though nothing they did was good enough.

      • Also, I’d love to help create change… but it is nearly impossible to convince people to have a different perception of black people, when all they are see rappers, making millions, glorifying thug life. And, really, this is what this article boils down to. I know some pretty awesome black people. Respectable, with good jobs, doing well… and I have NEVER heard them use the “N” word. I’ve known coaches, college professors, business executives, regular laborers at local companies… haven’t heard “ebonics” or the use of the “N” word. Some of them speak with a “black accent”, if that makes sense at all, but none of them have used inappropriate language in my presence. Perhaps if the average white person saw more of that and less of the “rap culture”, it would change perception.
        I don’t know how to fix it. I really don’t. It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s more that I can see the validity behind the arguments, and I don’t know how to argue against them. Because citing evils that weren’t committed by or to the people we’re talking to… isn’t gonna cut it.

      • I will try to respond to your two comments separately, as they cover very different ground. So here’s my response to your first.

        First off, it is not clear to me why you included the blog post that you linked to, so if you could, please explain further your reasons for linking.

        To your point about the AVERAGE White person contributing to the system that “forces disproportionate numbers of people of Color (particularly Black people) into the alternative economy of drug trade or other “illegal” activity in order to survive.” Two things:

        1. Every single White person in the United States benefits from a series of privileges afforded to us because of the color of our skin. Those privileges ensure that people like you and I (as we are both White) are privileged in the job market (see here: http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2003/resume.html) and the educational system (see here: http://changefromwithin.org/2012/06/06/are-white-students-being-disadvantaged-by-affirmative-action/) and on and on. Now, as an “average” (not sure what that means) White person, none of those things are your fault. However, if we as White folks are not actively working to challenge these systems in every aspect of our lives, calling out our privileges and working to undermine them, then we are directly contributing to and benefitting from that system that advantages us at the expense of people of Color. Again, if the deck is stacked in our favor and we know it’s stacked in our favor and we choose to play that game of poker anyway, we have plenty to feel guilty about.

        Yes, you may not be wealthy, and as such, you may not have the full extent of wealth privilege that exists in this country, but you are still White which means that you still have a tremendous amount of privilege (http://changefromwithin.org/2011/03/16/the-relativity-of-privilege/).

        I do not think every White person is the enemy. I actually think that the system of oppression in which we live is the enemy. But the “we’re all the same and thus should simply set aside our differences” mentality of many “liberal” White folks actually contributes to the problem because it erases any acknowledgement of the power and privilege that EVERY White person benefits from in a system that was built for them.

        White people can act as anti-racist allies, but to say things like “When we start treating people as people, have civilized discussions as opposed burning them at the stake… we will see growth and change” is not going to get us there because it relies so incredibly heavily on your privilege.

      • To the second comment:

        There is so much subtle (and not so subtle) racist and classist language in this piece, that it’s a bit overwhelming to even begin responding.

        First, what exactly makes a person “respectable?” That they have a “good job?” That they talk the way you want them to talk, never using “ebonics” (as if that is somehow a sign of being lesser or lower than you)? That they never use the N word? That they don’t seem to participate in or appreciate “rap culture?” I cannot even begin to expressed how messed up this language is. It’s not even subtly racist. It is overtly racist, essentially saying that Black folks need to meet your standards of “respectable” for them to gain your respect.

        What you are saying to me is that the only standard that you consider “respectable” is Whiteness, White culture, White language. Any person who fits outside of those norms are somehow not “respectable.” That is, in fact, racism (mixed with a healthy dose of classism).

        There is no way for you to “help create change” so long as some human beings are more or less respectable.

        BEYOND the incredible racism of your language, two things:
        1. The fact that White people cannot see, comprehend, and consider the incredible diversity of African American lives, cultures, and experiences around them and can somehow only see “rap culture” (which is a pathetic reduction of Hip Hop into two subtly racist words), then the problem is not Black people. The problem is WHITE RACISM. White people are insulated from diversity because of White racism – White flight, segregated neighborhoods, economic marginalization of people of Color. (Leaving aside the problematic reality that commercial “rap” is created largely for White consumption and is signed, pushed, and marketed by wealthy White folks), it is not the responsibility of Black people to present themselves in a way that is palatable to White people. It is the responsibility of White people to dismantle the racist reality that insulates them from difference.
        2. Have you ever considered that the Black people in your life might not share their full selves in the spaces where you encounter them? Countless people of Color have written about the trying experience of “performing” at work or in White spaces in order to keep their jobs or their social status (Here’s just ONE example: http://blogs.hbr.org/hbr/hewlett/2012/10/too_many_people_of_color_feel.html) because they know the consequences of not “talking White” or acting in a way that is palatable to White people (Say, best case scenario, that you might make 10% less for talking “Black” http://www.freakonomics.com/2008/07/07/how-much-does-it-cost-you-in-wages-if-you-sound-black/). My point is that it is entirely possible that the Black people you know are being their full and complete selves, but it is also entirely possible that your observation was not reflective of their full selves.

        I am not simply citing evils that were not committed by or that affect people around us. I am citing a system of oppression that is real and informs our every single experience in the United States. If you can’t see that, then I firmly do not believe it is possible for you to “help create change.”

        I’m going to be honest. This comment just might be the single most racist thing I have ever had posted on my blog, and I have had unapologetic members of the Aryan Nation and eugenicists comment on my blog. And here’s why:

        “I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

  15. I am a white man and i am not a racist , or least i do my very best to treat everyone by the golden rule . but but your argument makes no sense to me. it seems like you are promoting reverse racism. isnt it just as bad an idea to say that one race is better than another ?to me , this is what you are saying when you say its offensive for whites to use that word.and the only difference in the people saying it is skin color. i admit dont have a lot of contact with blacks in my life , and so this something that i dont have much experience with. im just trying to understand how you think this is a correct view.
    i would love to see an experiment performed where a white man or woman is made up to look black , have them approach a group of blacks and interact with them and then after a while the word is spoken to them. i bet that they dont bat an eye at it. then later on the same person goes up to them without the black makeup on and the same variables occur and the word is spoken again. the reaction , im betting will be completely different , they will most likely be incensed . and the only difference will be the color of the skin ,. it seems like all it is to me is just reversed racism. which is wrong in any event. paula deen is fired for the use of it , yet musicians and actors who are black use it without any consequences . im not advocating the word at all , i think that its vile and its use should be discontinued by everyone, regardless of who says it.

    • CW,

      A few points:

      First, any time that a White person (I am assuming you are White based on the context of your comment) must preface any statement with “I’m not racist…”, it is a sign to me that something that is racist or at least lacking understanding of how race and racism operate in society. For more on whether or not the average White person carries deeply engrained racism, check out http://changefromwithin.org/2012/04/03/i-am-george-zimmerman/

      Second, reverse racism does not exist. It is not a thing, nor will it ever be a thing. To argue that reverse racism exists is to treat racism as simply an interpersonal experience between two people of different races, and to do so is to profoundly and dangerously misunderstand racism. Racism refers to systems of power and privilege that systematically privilege certain people over others based on the color of those people’s skin and the cultural realities and differences that come from this social construction of race. Racism is not simply calling one another names. For more on why reverse racism cannot exist, check out this piece: http://changefromwithin.org/2012/04/12/talking-about-race-racism/

      Finally, if in the context of our society and our institutions, race really were just the amount of melanin in our skin (as biology tells us it is), then sure, it would be no different for a White person to call a Black person that word than for a Black person to call a Black person that word. But unfortunately, we live in the context of our history and our present. We live in the context of one of the most violent and comprehensive systems of racist control that the world has ever seen. We live in the context of chattel slavery and all of the horrors that come along with it. We live in the context of lynchings and Jim Crow. We live in the context of the prison industrial complex and the widespread villainization of of people with dark skin for the profits and political will of wealthy White people. We live in the context of daily racist violence. We live in the context of the economic legacy of all of these things that makes people of Color (particularly Black people) vastly more likely to live in poverty and forces disproportionate numbers of people of Color (particularly Black people) into the alternative economy of drug trade or other “illegal” activity in order to survive. And all of this occurs to the benefit of White folks (particularly wealthy White folks, but all White folks nonetheless) at the expense of people of Color.

      Thus, this word carries a tremendous amount of weight of context, so it is not simply melanin that makes it different.

      And as I said above, because White people lost the privilege to have a part in this discussion, it is wholly just that a White person like Paula Deen should be fired for using that word. And it is wholly acceptable that the debate continues in Black communities about whether or not any Black person should use that word in an attempt to reclaim it.

      Oh, and nowhere did I say that any one race was better than another. That is simply a misreading of everything I’ve ever written. :)

      • I have been reading your comments and I have to say that you have finally proven that you are lost and have no concept of reality. your posts and comments are spreading real hate. you state there is no such thing as reverse racism? how can you make such an ignorant comment? Have you taken a real good look at the real world lately? Come to Los Angeles and you will see whole communities like, Korea town, little sigon, russia village, these communities have created a world where you and I are not welcomed. if you try to shop in one of these places and you are not part of their culture, you are ignored and all you see is a finer telling you to leave, lets be clear, the only reason i am not welcomed is because I am not part of their culture…this is racism, plain and simple. so while you post equality and are views and laws support this, a cultural change is occurring. We are all suppose to be equal, spewing your propaganda is only supporting the creation of racism. you may believe in your argument but you have made it so complex that every day Americans have no idea what you are trying to say. No one can lose the opportunity to say something. your argument allows for more racism…..?

      • Ken,

        I cannot help but shake my head when you posit that my argument (which is not in fact mine but is a reflection of critical race theory and structural power theory) is so complex that everyday Americans can’t understand it. The argument is quite simple, but it challenges the very lives and existence of many people of privilege (in this case White people with race privilege), so you don’t seem to want to hear it.

        Here’s what I am saying, laid out simply: to call one person of one race treating a person from another race poorly “racism” removes all power from the word. That is why I use the word “bigotry” to describe this phenomenon. Racism is not simply an interpersonal feeling of bigotry. It is a system whereby one group of people is privileged above other groups of people based on the color of their skin and where some people are actively oppressed and repressed because of the color of their skin.

        It is important that we understand racism as a SYSTEM OF POWER, OPPRESSION, and PRIVILEGE because to refuse to do so makes it impossible to actually realize justice.

        Thus, while it may be true that in LA (or Chicago or New York) there are areas of the city where I am not welcome because of the color of my skin, that is not racism. That is a RESPONSE to racism. White people have constructed a system where EVERYTHING was available to us, that everything was ours and within our grasp (or so the line of logic went in order to turn poor White people against poor people of Color to keep the power in the hands of wealthy White people). Thus, for people of Color to create a space where they attempt to resist the ever-present drum of assimilation and White supremacy is not racism. It is a resistance to racism, even when it is not pleasant and feel-goody for White folks.

        You see, when a White person acts in a racist way to a person of Color, that is not the root of racism. It is a symptom of the bigger problem, and the bigger problem is a system of oppression on which this entire country was built. It is a system that ensures that White people do not face the constant threat of cultural genocide but in fact get to control their own narratives, by in large. It is a system that ensures that White people’s median wealth is 30 times the median household wealth of Black or Latino families (and likely far more for Native families) because of transgenerational wealth accumulation and transgenerational poverty. It is a system where White people are statistically more likely to carry or deal drugs than any other race but where Black men are 6 times as likely and Latino men are twice as likely to see the inside of a prison on drug-related offenses.

        Simply put, you cannot reduce a SYSTEM to “but he was mean to me because of my race” because it divorces the act from the constructs of power in which it happens.

        Thus, reverse racism DOES NOT EXIST because the only people who act in racially-bigoted manners with the weight of a racist system behind them are White people. Sure, people of Color can be bigots or assholes, but when we look at the bigger picture, they cannot be racist.

        And to be clear, your “colorblind” ideology that says that if we just ignore race, racism will disappear is not only problematic, but it is downright dangerous because it discredits all of those people of Color out there who are trying to help White folks like you and I see that there is something more than interpersonal dynamics going on here.

  16. #1 — 600 years? Really? it is now 2013 minus 600 gives us 1413. So I guess the Aboriginal American Indians were also into the slave trade and using the word. I do believe that All people groups and colors have been slaves over the years. The Jewish peoples being some of the most abused over the centuries. Just saying.

    • Considering that the European Slave trade that led directly into the trans-Atlantic slave trade started, arguably, when the first processes of European colonization began in the middle ages, 600 is a generous figure.

      And while there is no way to compare suffering, let us not pretend that the most comprehensive and violent system of slave trade in the history of the world in the trans-Atlantic slave trade is something that should be written off because other people have experienced slavery too. There are few if any aspects of the history of Europe and the American colonies (north and south) that more powerfully impact the current realities in which we live.

      But thanks for bringing up those points that completely distract from the point of the article!

      • You are the definition of the continued racism? Stop shoving it down everybody’s throat. And yes, I’m a born in America, 60 year old black man. I am not African, but I am American.

      • BB, I’d be curious to know with what you take issue

  17. This conversation is stupid. The “N” should be off the table for everyone. When I hear someone say that word, I question why they use it. 1. It became popular in gangster rap as a way to make money. 2. It’s offensive when anyone says it. Whether it’s the actual word or a variation of it…it still refers to slavery. 3. Empowerment…it is not.

    Whether or not you agree…younger generations are learning the word is ok because it is glamorized in mainstream pop culture. The sensitivity for the word is being washed out.

    Don’t place restrictions on the rest of society…everyone is equal whether you believe it or not. And the black community has the ability to CHOOSE and word they want to promote their culture. It lacks class to defend their right to use the word.

    • All I can ask is that you read the comments above, as I have responded to your concerns in other posts.

      However, since you are referring to Black people as “they,” I will ask that you not pretend as if you have the authority to dictate what any Black person should or should not think or do, particularly in regard to their own oppression.

      • What gives you the authority to make the claims you are making?

      • To which claims are you referring? I do not believe I have any authority except in so far as I am a White person who is attempting to engage people (particularly White people) in dialogue on my blog about issues of power, oppression, and privilege.

  18. I can’t reply to your last reply, perhaps we’ve exceeded the reply limit. I posted the link to that article because it struck me, more than anything else you’ve posted, as a reason for the constant battle between blacks and whites, that doesn’t really exist between any other races to the degree that it does with blacks and whites.
    I like it because it shows a real way to create change. The article specifically applies to sexual violence, but I still feel that it is applicable It talks about how a young man was brought to realize how “hollering at women” made the woman feel. It talked about getting people to see how their own behavior, that they never thought of as being wrong or mean or hurtful, was actually causing harm to another person.
    We are creatures of habit. When we talk about Paula Deen… people are quick to dismiss how the culture she grew up in affected her actions. But it’s true. If it is what you see, day in and day out, you will either recognize on your own (rare) and rise above that, or you will follow in the same footsteps. Statistically, the majority of people follow in the same footsteps. In the case of Paula Deen, she got a rude awakening. However, she’s a public figure. The average person who grew up as she did, will never see how their words and actions, as innocent as they may THINK they are, affect others in a negative manner. However, I think that this case is actually going to have a negative impact. People are too heated. And I think respect and lack of blame are key to creating discussion that will truly open eyes.
    When we talk about about the issue that you did not address… rap music, specifically that which glamorizes gangs, violence, etc., which is so popular… what if that lifestyle is not perpetuated on purpose, but is simply formed due to habit, for lack of a better word. As difficult as it is for anyone to climb the social class ladder, I’m sure it is even more difficult if you live in a gang heavy environment. Rather than blame that on someone, why not figure out a way, as the author of the linked article did with sexual violence, to change that mentality. I know that is something that is an effort by some groups, but how much emphasis is placed on that? After reading that article, I’m convinced that it’s a possibility worth investing in.
    As to the article you linked regarding resumes… I’m sure there is a lot of truth to that. However, when I was trying to decide what to name my son, I didn’t come across anything relating to “black sounding names”, perhaps because I wasn’t looking for that, but I did come across a lot of articles on how kids with “traditional” names were more likely to be successful than those with unique names. That fits right in with your article’s “Anne, Gregg, etc.” Those aren’t just “white” names, they are very old school, traditional names. I’m not discounting the article, just saying that there may be other variables and control factors that should have been included in that study.
    In regards to the affirmative action article. Very interesting. Did you note that the least likely group to attend college was Hispanics? The rest of the margins aren’t huge. The percentage of white people to attend college isn’t that much greater… I’d really expected it to be higher. I’d also be interested to see percentages on how many applied to college from each group, and address that as well.
    When we address the issue of standardized testing… what is the answer to that? Do we change the wording to fit a vernacular that isn’t what the largest percentage of people taking the test speaks? Do we change the structure of schools so that the same vernacular is being taught in all places, regardless of the race? Let’s be honest, if you are trying to get a high paying job and you manage to get past your name, you can’t be using slang. Grammar is important. So what is the solution to even the playing field?
    Wealth- very important. How do you address that issue? You can’t take from one and give to another, unless you want to breed A LOT of resentment… so how do you address that? And when you do, can you send some my way?
    Perhaps I should have commented on all of these on the individual articles, and if so, I apologize.

    • When talking about wealth disparity from rich to poor, you say ” You can’t take from one and give to another, unless you want to breed A LOT of resentment… ”

      Huh, reminds me of how America took this entire country from tens of thousands of indigenous people. Reminds me of how America was built on the slave trade that took so many human beings from one place and “gave” them to another. Reminds me how we’re bailing out banks and not homeowners. Really, you CAN’T take from one and give to another? That’s not what history has taught me.

      • I didn’t say it can’t be done. I said it can’t be done without breeding a lot of anger and resentment. Which history HAS taught us, or we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now.

  19. To your second response… wow, that’s the first time I’ve ever been called racist… interesting.
    1st…. respectable- has nothing to do with language or the particular job held, or any of the things you assumed. Respectable to me means- honest, trustworthy, drug free, violence free, treats other people with respect, doesn’t talk about people behind their back, dependable, and I could go on but that covers the basics.
    2nd…. perhaps I should have been more clear- some of them do use a different dialect than I. Aside from sometimes thinking “what did he/she just say?”, it’s not a problem.
    3rd…. Yes, some black people probably do act differently around white people. I’m not ignorant to that idea. I’ve been to church with them, I’ve been to dinner with them, I’ve grown up with them. I don’t expect people to act like me in order to like them or be around them, except in the things mentioned in the above respectable clarification.
    4th…. In regards to rap culture… what better term? Hip hop? Ok… different words, same thing. Moving forward. Marketed for and by white people? I wasn’t aware of that, but I’ll certainly take note of especially in regards to the subject of racism. Either way, it is appalling to have a race defined by a music that glamorizes drugs, guns, “hoes”, etc. And to be clear, I realize that not all rap, or hip hop, consists of those topics, but it’s pretty much like old country songs, pretty predictable. Also- while hip hop does not represent all, or even the majority, of black people, it’s what people see the most. Just like what people see the most of white people is big houses and vacations.

    • Race and culture are not synonymous. Race is a social construct. Culture is tradition, customs, and identity and it varies within “race.” Only a white person would choose to define an entire race with rap and simultaneously say that rap and hip hop are the same thing. Saying rap and hip hop are the same thing is like saying Death Metal and Rock & Roll are the same thing.

      • I actually simply said “rap” at first, and was corrected to “hip hop”. I assumed that the person who corrected me knew more than I did about that, perhaps I assumed incorrectly?
        Also, I didn’t define an entire race… I said it was what people see the most. And, right or wrong, being the most visible reference to people who have no other reference, it paints a rough picture.

  20. The comments that are being posted on this article are becoming more and more redundant. There is a robust discussion with plenty of replies above to the racist and colorblind ideology that continually gets posted here. I, unfortunately, do not have the time and energy to respond to the incredible volume of problematic comments, so I am now closing the comments on this post.

  21. […] few years back, I published a post titled “4 Reasons White People Can’t Use the N-Word.”  Since it’s publication, it’s been one of my most popular […]

  22. […] bottom line is that it is a word derived from hatred and disgust for African-American people. White people during times of slavery, reconstruction, post-reconstruction, the civil rights movement, and […]

  23. […] a White Man usually asks why Black folks are allowed to use the “n word” but he’s not (read my response here).  Then a White young person usually asks, “How do you feel about Affirmative Action? Because […]

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