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It’s Just a Word, Right?

Although the n-word may be familiar enough within popular music culture, issues around its usage remain contentious. A blasphemous utterance? Or an innocuous chime in sing-alongs? Rhoda Ajilore weighs up why the n-word is still not a term we should all feel free to use.

By Rhoda Ajilore


You just clock back in from lunch when a rap song starts to play on the office radio. Your white co-worker is rapping along and just as the artist says “nigga” you shoot them a glance and they awkwardly retreat before they can utter the expletive. After a few seconds of tension, they enquire “Hey, not to be rude but why can’t I say it? You know the n-word? I mean it’s just a word!” This question-statement combination is one many of us will have encountered or may have even asked ourselves; and in a time where racial tensions are high, surely there is more to worry about than an age-old word?

Words are used for communication and expression, they hold meaning and allow understanding. Therefore, to suggest that anything is “just a word”, implies that words hold no power, a narrative that is particularly irrational and deserves no place in a discussion about the word “nigger”. The socio-historical significance of this term contextualizes its definition and is therefore loaded with meaning.

So, what is the history of this word and why would it cause me, amongst many other black people, discomfort upon hearing it spoken from the wrong tongue? Its etymology derives from the word Negro, the Spanish and Portuguese word for black. “Nigger” is a colloquialism created by white slave owners during the Atlantic slave trade. Primarily used as a metonym for black slaves, the word “nigger” became a tool of oppression, and by the 1800s it was a common derogative used every time a slave was whipped, mocked and spat on. It became a word that further established a racial hierarchy in the colonial West. No matter how long ago you think slavery may have ended (which, actually, wasn’t that long ago), the same mind-set that created the word nigger still exists today – it’s called racism.

Although times have moved forward from the atrocities of slavery, the ideology that the word n****r has embedded into the mind-set of society is still a harsh reality. The term ‘white privilege’ explains how white people have ascertained a societal advantage through the subjugation of people of colour, and that they (white people) do not feel the negative social effects that were established during slavery and unfortunately continue today. White privilege means that as a white person, it is more than likely that a lot of things in the western world are catered to you, and are designed and put in place for your benefit. You may not have to worry about being negatively stereotyped and targeted by the police on the basis of your skin colour; if you go into a mainstream make up store you will find a cornucopia of varied shades that match your complexion. This brings us to the answer of the question: “Hey! Why can’t I, as a white person, say the n-word?” You can’t because you can literally say everything else.

Some people argue that if white people can’t use the n-word, neither should black people. When Piers Morgan decided to write an article about “the n-word”, he stated that in order to kill off the racism attached to the word, black people should stop using it; he received a lot of backlash from across social media. One justification that Piers Morgan gave for why he wanted black people to stop using the word was that he didn’t like it being used. The very notion that black people should stop saying a word because a white upper-classed man doesn’t like it being said reiterates the very narrative that we need to get rid of – the narrative that demands that black people appropriate their life experiences to standards set by a white political hegemony. Apart from not being the cure to racism, further problems with Piers’ suggestion is that not all black people say the word, and even if we all stopped saying it, racist white people would still probably say it. Plus, why should it be our job to kill a word we didn’t create?

However, it is understandable to question why we would want to use a word with a long history of derogation. Just as rapper Kendrick Lamar suggested in the album version of his song ‘I’ a word like ‘Negus,’ the Ethiopian word for emperor, could have been chosen. After all, it is more positive and uplifting sentiment.

However, as well meaning as this suggestion is, it does nothing to change the fact that the word nigger wasn’t chosen, it was adapted. The use of the word in hip-hop culture is just a modern day representation of what our black ancestors had already started through reclamation. They took the word nigger (a word synonymous with worthlessness and un-intelligence) and instead used it to represent strength, unity and a revolt against the very people who tried to break them down – these are the ideals of free agency and autonomy that black people and activists are still advocating for today.

And it’s not only white people who shouldn’t say the n-word; it’s other races too. It is important to understand, acknowledge and respect the experiences of a group you are not a part of. Even as a non-black person who has experienced racial angst, it is disrespectful to use a word that was not borne of your historical struggle.

So it’s not that you can’t say the word, but it’s that you shouldn’t and you shouldn’t want to. It doesn’t matter if you have a black friend, a black boyfriend, or a black cat; not if you eat Caribbean food religiously or lived in Africa when you were 8; not if your next-door neighbour is black or if your favourite artist is Jay Z.

Yes, we want equality but that doesn’t require doing the same things or having the same experiences, it simply means being asking that we treat every human being like the humans they we are; like their lives are worth something.

There are constantly stories that indicate a lack of representation for people of colour in the media. Reports of a person with dark skin being discriminated against at work, of another black life being lost unjustly to the supposed purveyors of justice; but instead of acknowledging these inequalities, you’d rather complain about what you can and can not say, I mean, surely there’s more for you to worry about than an age-old word?