Sunday, March 6, 2016
For the most part, my blog is intended to provide a moment of levity in an otherwise stressful world. Every now and again, however, I like to tackle America’s burning questions. The other day, a woman asked me a question I have been asked many times before. No, not “Why do you have some many $1s?” (Editor’s Note: Although…) but rather, “Why is it okay for black people to use the ‘N-word’?” I could’ve flippantly dismissed the question by asking, “Why? Do you want to use it?” That, however, wouldn’t have furthered understanding, and, as anyone who knows me will tell you, Damion McCloud is all about furthering understanding.
As a McCloud, I use the “N-Word” as many times as Samuel L. Jackson uses “motherfucker”. [Ed’s Note: McClouds also use the word “motherfucker” as much as Samuel L. Jackson uses the word “motherfucker”.] So, in an effort to explain what many people wonder aloud, and even more wonder in silence, I will share what I told her and expound upon those thoughts.
To answer the question effectively, one must understand the question and why the question is being asked. I will tackle the latter first. Why do people ask that question? In my experience, there are three reasons people ask that question:
- They’re racist, and they want to be able to say the word with all its original intent without being held accountable. (That’s a relatively small contingent as racist usually don’t care what other people think.)
- They’re not racist, but they’re upset that they can be fired or made into a social pariah for using a word that others are allowed to use freely without the same risk.
- They believe it’s a horrible word, and that no one should be able to use it. Ever.
Now, for the question itself. Although, there are several variants, the question is essentially, “If the ‘N-word’ is so bad, then why is it okay for black people to use it?”
Swear words can be directed at anyone and have the same meaning regardless of who is using it or to whom it is directed. Hate speech, on the other hand, is used by one group with the intent of telling / reminding another group that they are less than. The “N-word” was created by white people in times of slavery to remind black people that they were property. When blacks gained their freedom, it was used to remind them that, although they were no longer slaves, they should remember their place. It was not just the use of the word, sticks and stones and all that, but the actions that accompanied the word (i.e. beatings, hangings, refusal of service) that gave the word extra power. When those actions became illegal, it was used to remind us that, no matter how far we have come, we are still not equal.
As people became more enlightened, more accepting of those different than themselves, the word became more taboo. Unacceptable in civilized society. I can remember a fourth grade classmate, while reading aloud from a text book, refusing to say the name of the country Niger, because he confused it with that most hateful of words.
One day, not sure when it first happened or how it spread [Ed’s Note: He knows; he just can’t tell you.], the people who made “bad” mean “good”, took control of the “N-word”. With a slight modification, we turned it into a term of endearment; a greeting whose use acknowledged a shared experience. That being said, we also use the word to express anger, disappointment, sadness, disbelief, joy, caring, to see if an intruder is in the house, etc. It is truly a versatile word in both meaning and pronunciation. It is one of the most versatile words in existence; second only to “motherfucker”.
“So,” you may be asking, “if the ‘N-word’ has lost its bite, why can only black people use it?” There are three main reasons. First of all, as I mentioned, our use of that word, in part, acknowledges a shared experience. No matter how many black friends you have, how much hip-hop you know by heart, how many classes you’ve taken, how many marches you’ve been in, how many documentaries you’ve seen, how many books you’ve read, how many times you voted for Obama, or how enlightened you may be, unless you are black, you will never have that experience.
Secondly, as much as we like to say the “N-word” doesn’t have power, hearing it from the wrong people still triggers an emotional (sometimes physical) response. As with many things, it is not only what is being wielded, but who is doing the wielding. Like I mentioned before, the “N-word” was created by white people to belittle and subjugate black people. So, white people asking black people why they can’t use the “N-word” when black people can use it is like a serial killer asking a chef why he is not permitted to use knives when the chef is free to do so at his leisure. Because you have shown that you cannot be trusted with it! No matter how far we have come, and we (the greater “we”; blacks and whites) have come an extremely long way – most of us—we have not achieved the post-racial society that some would have us believe. I was raised by school teachers, went to an Ivy League school (The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania), work for a large bank, and own two Jaguars, and I have been called the “N-word” in its true sense more times than I care to remember.
Finally, the use of the “N-word” has gone from being widely accepted to taboo to something whose use can turn someone into a social pariah or even get them fired. That fact has given the word newfound power. This time, however, the power is not over those to whom the word was originally directed, but rather over those who did the directing. Allowing those who are not black to use it, or condemning its use by black people, would remove that power…and we aren’t ready for that to happen just yet.