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Why Black People Can Use the N-Word: A Perspective
Last comment by sebekm 1 year, 2 months ago.

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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.

This post was written by African American English


Latest Activity: Jul 02, 2013 at 1:44 PM


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PoliticsNation commented on Tuesday, Jul 02, 2013 at 14:15 PM

A perspective on the word from a white male..

I have to admit, as a white male, the words use is very confusing to me. The reason it confuses me is because as I grew up and learned the basic rules of showing respect for others, I took the time to understand why certain words were off the table and why they should be off the table, if one wants to walk the road of kindness.

The N word, when I hear it, harkens me back to a time when we treated the black community like property and herded them like cattle. For me, to hear that word said, is to disrespect in death, the respect they deserved in life. It is always explained to me that when those in the black community use it, they use it to empower, they use it as a term of endearment. How does one do that effectively though? When ones ancestors were treated in such an egregious manner and suffered hardship no human should endure, how can that word roll off ones tongue without comprehending it’s weight?

Using it in front of white people, at least among the people I have been able to engage in this discussion with, it’s not that we are upset we can’t say the word, what respectful person would want to? When we hear those in the black community use it, or embrace it, regardless of their intent, or their perceived re branding of the word, all I think of is the ancestral history of it and I weep for those who were persecuted the way they were and how cavalierly it’s tossed around. The word is to weighted, it’s to blood soaked to play with in song or redefinition, it weighs heavy on my heart and it offends me. Why can’t that word be buried in the archives of time, as a way of respecting now, those people who were not respected and treated with kindness then? Otherwise, I am at a loss as to how, we as a society can ever get to a place where we understand what we once were as a people, to where we want to go.

The word divides us, no matter who’s mouth it flows from. The concept of using that word, it baffles me.

HMJC commented on Tuesday, Jul 02, 2013 at 15:22 PM

You would think that using the N word in any context black or white is step back as PN stated. Myself personaly do not find myself refering to my close friends as a cracker, white bread, home slice... Why? it alludes to lack of respect for ones peers and themselves. To be frank I consider the rationaliztion of the use of it from any race ingnorant at best. The N word has and will continue to be a blemish on this countries past. Anyone that continues to use it in any "way" is part of the problem.

gacpl commented on Tuesday, Jul 02, 2013 at 18:20 PM

when African Americans (and certain others) use the N-word for camaraderie purposes it shows what kind of person they really are. and when black people call white people crackers it shows just how uneducated they really are. if they knew what it came from they wouldn't use it.

PoliticsNation commented on Tuesday, Jul 02, 2013 at 18:35 PM

@gacpl so what I hear you saying is that anyone that uses the N-word-white black blue or brown it "shows just how uneducated they really are"...For those of you who don't know- The word cracker-was used to describe a person that whipped/beat slaves...Thanks for posting.

PoliticsNation commented on Tuesday, Jul 02, 2013 at 18:39 PM

There are multiple explanations of the etymology of "cracker", most dating its origin to the 18th century or earlier.

One theory holds that slave foremen in the antebellum South used bullwhips to discipline African slaves, with such use of the whip being described as "cracking the whip". The white foremen who cracked these whips thus became known as "crackers".

They are called by the town's-people, "Crackers," from the frequency with which they crack their large whips, as if they derived a peculiar pleasure from the sound"

A "cracker cowboy" with his Florida Cracker Horse and dog by Frederick Remington, 1895Another whip-derived theory is based on Florida's "cracker cowboys" of the 19th and early 20th centuries; distinct from the Spanish vaquero and the Western cowboy. Cracker cowboys did not use lassos to herd or capture cattle. Their primary tools were cow whips and dogs.[8][citation needed]

An alternative theory holds that the term comes from the common diet of poor whites. The 1911 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica supposes that the term derives from the cracked (kernels of) corn which formed the staple food of this class of people.

sebekm commented on Tuesday, Jul 02, 2013 at 22:04 PM

Good discussion. Re: my Sanford and Son comments on your other blog - it is possible that Fred is saying the word with the "a" ending (as opposed to "er"), giving additional meaning to the dialogue. This may also explain why TV One sees no problem in running the complete episode. Obviously, Redd Foxx had no problem with it.

HMJC commented on Wednesday, Jul 03, 2013 at 08:39 AM

I would not say that anyone who uses the N word is uneducated. I would say that those that continue to use any racial slurs are part of the reason we have not moved as foward as we could have as a people. Individuals that use slurs in a "ok" towards each other demonstrates a lack od respect for their own race and themselves. The bottom line is the N word has been considered offensive for decades; using it in any context or ethnicity is wrong and thats what we should be teaching our children. I leave with a conversation I had with one of my black troops; he was being counseled again for misconduct. He stated to me SGT .....you just dont like black people. I replied that I dont like dumb a**** and stupid is color blind. Believe it or not he actually got that his punishment was not about color but about Dumb A*** conduct. Racism, intolorance, and stupid have no specific color. We should keep that in mind when we encounter situations that stupid can come in any color.

Funkentelecky commented on Wednesday, Jul 03, 2013 at 11:19 AM

PN, great post and informative topic of discussion. I feel like we are expecting America to accept a double standard because of our skin color. This isn’t helping us to move forward IMHO.

Additionally I agree with Nicholas Payton and Herman Cain too! I’m not an African American like Jesse Jackson want’s to enforce on me. I’m a Black American. President Obama is an African American and so is Charlize Theron. For the details on why please feel free to read the link below. This isn’t hate it’s reality, and not political correctness.

http://nicholaspayton.wordpress.com/2...

JimmyMack commented on Wednesday, Jul 03, 2013 at 15:23 PM

Wow Funk. Never thought about Charlize Theron being African American. Very good point and perspective. Thanks.

hollabackk commented on Saturday, Jul 06, 2013 at 06:50 AM

Using that word in any shape or form by any race is wrong.

Slavery was and still is a business. (It still goes on today underground with many women and children. Its just called Human Trafficking) Black slaves were bought and sold in a public forum to help build a country and a economy.

The "N" word was used to let an entire race of people know their place, it was used to keep them down. They were not called by their name, they were called "N" allday everyday by everyone.

Can you even imagine that? Having a name but not being called by it. Being called "N" at all times in any circumstance.

Its like being overweight and being called "fatty" at all times. At work, at home, in the street,everywhere. Your name never being used just to let you know that your nothing but a fatty and you should know your place.

Now imagine that being done to a entire race of people for 300 years. "N" allday everyday......

We live in a world where racism is taught, if that were to end we would be much better off.
The old saying is true...

"A black child and a white child will play together allday until one of their parents comes along and tells them not too".

The "N" word will never go away. Some people are dead and gone and are still called "that "N" so-n-so"..... We just all need to do better.

SportsFan31313 commented on Monday, Jul 08, 2013 at 13:46 PM

Let me help you here in answering that question. I travel around the continental united states, (mostly large cities) you here that word used a lot.

(Nigga) Not (Nigger)

I find that all colors use that N word, (Nigga) and it is used as a term of endearment. Nothing considered derogatory to the people whom use it toward each other. I mostly hear it coming from youths ranging from the teens even up in their 40's. In addition, they do not have a full concept of why the N word is so bad. They were never exposed to that living in the North all of their lives. I personally don't use either of the word period. It should NEVER be used.

Now please allow me to give a brief over view as to the using the word Nigger, Cracker, Honky or other derogatory words that I consider extremely despicable to use.
In my humble opinion, the use of the word CRACKER, HONKEY, etc does not register negatively or even bring a disturbing effect on what is considered to be associated with Caucasians. But to use the word "Nigger" it rings out terrible because back in the days of slavery, Blacks were savagely beaten, back women being raped, and killed by Caucasians who owned slaves. The word Nigger was associated with those atrocities.

Example: when a slave was beaten, the N word was used while him or her was being brutally beaten, raped or lynched by a slave owner. That N word has an everlasting derogatory negative effect towards blacks even in today's time. It's not only the word itself, but the atrocities that were committed at the same time while using or shouting out the N word directing it towards Blacks.

That word will forever be a despicable word to be use in any content directing it toward any person of color. There is a lot more that I could explain in more detail, but back to work. I hope this gives you somewhat a better understanding.

sebekm commented on Tuesday, Jul 09, 2013 at 19:04 PM

"I find that all colors use that N word, (Nigga) and it is used as a term of endearment."

Please excuse me if I don't test this premise on the streets.

SportsFan31313 commented on Thursday, Jul 11, 2013 at 15:54 PM

You should never test this. The "N" word should never be used by anyone. But I was explaining the difference in between the two words, what it meant, and how it is being used. I also stated that. It should never be used by anyone.

sebekm commented on Friday, Jul 12, 2013 at 13:12 PM

What confused me was your comment that "all colors use that N word....as a term of endearment." Especially the "all colors" part.

SportsFan31313 commented on Saturday, Jul 13, 2013 at 08:50 AM

Sebe,

While working on assignment in New York, I have seen people from different races use that word. (Nigga) Caucasians, Blacks, Lationos, Asains, etc all use that word. Observing them, I noticed how they use the word in context. Example: a caucasian male will approach a black male and embrace each other stating "WHAT'S UP MY NIGGA"! That was used as a term of endearment. That is what I meant in my earlier comment. However; I don't use that word at all period. It should never be uttered in any capacity.
There is too much infamous history attached to that word. While I hear people say get over ut and that word was used many years ago, I would say they don't understand because they were not raised or exposed to that era. The "N" word ascwe call it, will forever be renembered as it only stood for humilation, heartache, despair, and racial bigotry toward blacks anericans. I hope I cleared this up this time.

SportsFan31313 commented on Saturday, Jul 13, 2013 at 08:51 AM

Pardon my typos

SportsFan31313 commented on Saturday, Jul 13, 2013 at 11:06 AM

This is why one should never use the "N" word. Consequences could be a detriment to one's health.

Man Critically Injured In Reported Racially-Charged Incident In West Village
http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2013/07/1...

sebekm commented on Saturday, Jul 13, 2013 at 12:03 PM

"Example: a caucasian male will approach a black male and embrace each other stating "WHAT'S UP MY NIGGA"! That was used as a term of endearment."

I understand and can envision this....but IMHO those two guys had to know each other EXTREMELY well for this exchange to be understood and well-received by the black man. I have several black friends who I have known for decades and am as close to as any of my white friends, and I STILL would be reluctant to (as in I WOULDN'T) greet them with that phrase - EVER. Perhaps I'm just not "with it".....

up2sumptin commented on Saturday, Jul 13, 2013 at 12:51 PM

This is my take on the situation (right or wrong as it maybe.) When the followers of Christ first came on the scene they were called Christians by their detractors. It would be considered a religious slur in modern times. Yet over the years it was embraced and used proudly as a self identification by this young sect. The same example can be seen with the word Gay. Once a term of derision, now proudly embraced by the homosexual community. Perhaps the same is happening with the N word. I don't know but I do know the hurt and pain associated with the word is still too fresh and painful for those outside that sphere of hate and oppression to use.

SportsFan31313 commented on Saturday, Jul 13, 2013 at 16:00 PM

I believe that we all agree here that the "N" word should never be used in any type of way. I do'nt ever use it, and it should never be used by anyone.

sebekm commented on Tuesday, Jul 16, 2013 at 17:50 PM

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