Chapter 9 of Ijeoma Oluo’s awesome So You Want to Talk About Race focuses on the debate about whether various people can/should say the “N” word.
When I watched Dear White People on Netflix, I saw a sublime example of the power of words as they propel centuries-old racism and oppression. Words are just words unless they care politics with them.
And while it’s tempting to look at gay communities that have re-acquired and de-fanged the word “queer” such that many people seem to be able to use it, with sincerity, without it being pejorative, we cannot yet do the same with the “N” word.
Part of the debate in my experience came out of the dissolution of rampant political correctness in the late 1990s, also a time when people were talking about Ebonics. I read an article about how using the “N” word itself instead of the “N” word euphemism will be empowering because it can remove the stigma of the word and politically neutralize it. I get where they were coming from, but it didn’t feel right.
But in the 10-episode excellence of Dear White People, the ultimate conflict comes after some cooling of racial tensions on campus led to a frat party where races mixed calmly while dancing. A rap song plays, with some use of the “N” word. A black man and a white man are dancing nearby each other, singing along. The white man chooses to be silent when the “N” word comes up. Then he begins to say it. The black man thinks he shouldn’t and they stop dancing and have a discussion that elevates to at best an argument. Not a fight but an emotionally-charged argument that remains civil and respectful, though uncomfortable to others around. Then things happen and it escalates to the absurd degree that is now more common to most of us in the awakening of Black Lives Matter.
The answer is simple. White people can’t say the “N” word. It’s too loaded. It’s not benign. We may want it to be unloaded, but wishing isn’t enough.
Oluo captures it in chapter 9 with a simplicity and elegance I’ve never seen before [my emphasis]:
“Words have power. Words are more than their dictionary definition. The history of a word matters as long as the effects of that history are still felt.”
This last part finishes the discussion. And it may be why lots of people can use queer in a sociological sense because of gains made by the gay community in the last two generations that have somewhat eroded the systemic oppression they have experienced since forever.
Oluo continues [her emphasis]:
“The real unfairness lies in the oppression and inequality that these words helped create and maintain. ‘Just get over it,’ some people say, as if the pain of racial oppression is a switch you can just turn off. You can’t ‘get over’ something that is still happening. … So yes, the fact that people of color can say words that white people can’t is an example of injustice–but it’s not injustice against white people.”
So I think we’re done debating this issue. Until we have racial equality, white people can’t say the “N” word. And when we do have racial equality, why would we want to say it.