Belieb It Or Not: The N-Word Debate


The Twittersphere got riled up when old footage of Justin Bieber making a racially insensitive joke surfaced earlier this week. The music icon sets the joke up with “Why are Black people scared of chainsaws?” then finishes it by mimicking a chainsaw and repeated exclaiming  “Run nigga”. Now another video has surfaced of the pop star parodying one of his own songs to lyrics about killing Black people and joining the KKK. It’s been reported that the videos leaking was due to repeated unsuccessful extortion attempts against Justin.

On June 1st, Bieber issued a long statement apologizing for his “reckless” and “immature” mistake. Boxer Floyd Mayweather defended the singer, tweeting: “We all make mistakes when we are young, it’s part of growing up”.

And as usual when white celeb drops the N-bomb, the debate is stirred up again on whether or not it is ok for non-Black people to use it. While the social media lit up with fans both defending and condemning Bieber for his comments, celebs like The Breakfast Club co-host Charlemagne voiced their opinion on the matter. The radio personality spoke to Vibe Magazine, saying that the word can never be flipped as a term of endearment, because if it truly was, Black people would not fight so hard for it’s exclusiveness and would “let it be that way all across the board for everybody.”

Whether you think the word is horrid or can be transformed into a term of endearment, this Black cultural in-group phenomenon has turned into an issue the country loves to debate.

I can admit as someone who has used the N-word for a long time, there are times when it does feel like hypocrisy. But that feeling of contradiction comes as I hear the dozens of up-and-coming Chicago drill rappers end-rhyme every bar with “nigga” and how the word has been commodified, not as sympathy for the “why can’t I call my friends nigga too?” anguish non-Black people feel or when I use it around my Black friends. It seems obvious (to me at least) why other races shouldn’t say it. But when the “but Black people say it to each other” rebuttals come…………I just can’t.

The irony is that I can’t recall any huge debates over other words generally agreed to be offensive, but we still concede to their use in in-group contexts. Take “bitch” for example. Many women absolutely hate the word, no matter who says it. But there are plenty of women who use bitch in social situations towards each other. Personally, I don’t call anyone, man or women, that word. But as a man, I can’t call a woman a bitch and expect a simple “But women call themselves that” caveat to rescue me from my misogyny. So why is it so clear to us that even though it’s a bad word that is better off unsaid, men have no right to telling women what they can or cannot say? That isn’t a contradiction. It isn’t  double standard. It’s just a standard.

Like the N-Word, bitch has been used to denigrate, shame, assault, and kill the spirit of women for a very, very long time. I don’t have to give you a statistical or history lesson on who the victimizers (men) and who the victims (women) are , and why it is more scathing when men use it than when women do. So why do I have to give this history lesson about the N-Word and it’s variations?

This is why many Black people are skeptical about the whole debate, especially when it is taken outside the Black community. To them, this debate acts as pseudo-intellectual, subverted way of policing or controlling Black people, and re-appropriating Black speech. It’s a way to bottle Black Cool without actually having to be Black. And it’s frustrating to think that it seems like the fiery debate only started when white people came to reclaim it in the contemporary moment, as if the word vanished after slavery, then later fell from the sky into rap music.

In the recent past, the N-Word debate raged on when Clippers forward was fined by the NBA for using the word in a frustrated tweet after being objected from a game for (in his opinion) defending his teammates. Black journalists like Mike Wilbon agreed that though the NBA is justified in fining him, people outside of the Black community don’t have the right weigh  in on the debate. NBA legend Charles Barkley echoed Wilbon’s sentiment, saying “Listen, what I do with my black friends is not up to white America to dictate to me what’s appropriate and what’s inappropriate.

But not all Black people agree on the use of the word. This is evident in sports writer Jason Whitlock’s “More Than Sticks and Stones” piece. Whitlock argues that for some Black folk, the N-word became “the most cherished possession”, which shows the corrosive effects of “mass incarceration, the destruction of the traditional family unit and commercial hip-hop music”.  While I agree with that defenders of the N-Word cannot rationally explain it’s importance, I don’t think Black people argue that we should say it, or that the word itself is important. The argument is about being able to say whatever we want.

Whitlock continues to say that “it’s a sign of the depth of our self-hatred.”

Lack of understanding? Maybe, depending on the individual. Trivializing? You could make the case. But self-hatred? I just don’t buy it, because it again, it denies context. Saying the N-Word is no more or less a form of self-hate than Black people who still eat chitlins. Black cultural use of language by giving words double meaning (double talk) largely came from slavery and how we learned and transformed English to fit our own understanding and goals of communication (i.e. bad meaning good, or the coded language within negro spirituals for examples), just like how we turned the disgusting waste slave-owners gave us to eat into a delicacy. We were given filth, garbage, apathy, pain, and hate, but we kept our humanity in the best ways we could. While I would never surmise that the word’s contemporary use is in the same vein of reclaiming as our ancestors, I would argue that for many Black folk (probably more older than younger), the premise of transforming it into a term of endearment is an attempt (however problematic) at remembering that history, not a tool to disrespect it.

When Mike Wilbon or Charles Barkley admit that they only say it within the safety of their in-groups, that shouldn’t automatically be seen as an admittance of hypocrisy. The reason many Black folk don’t say the N-word around other races is because they don’t trust them (not all, but most) with understanding Black social, cultural, or historical reality anywhere near as much as (not all, but most) Black people. The fight is not over whether the word is bad or not (I think we all agree to various levels that it is bad), but over why Black speech is a debate in the first place and who is framing it.

But I do agree with Whitlock when he says “The N-word is like fast food or cigarettes”. We can justify it all we want, but ultimately, it’s bad for us.  Though I’m compelled to combat this idea that the word implies some deep-seated self-hatred, I won’t argue for the word’s use as if saying it is beneficial, and not saying it is detrimental.

So if you’re making the case that the N-Word should not be said by anyone anywhere at any time, your arguments surely rests on strong moral, philosophical, and logical grounds. But if you are trying to convince the world that the word has the same sting across contexts or that it’s unfair for it to be said exclusively by Black people, I will continue to wield my side-eye like a sword.

Not for one second do I think Justin Bieber or the hundreds (maybe thousands) of white kids (or other races) who probably say the word regularly in social situations are automatically racists every time the N-bomb detonates in their mouths. I even know a few myself. But like Justin, I have absolutely no illusions about assuming they understand Black culture in general, the history of the word, and why even though it really is unnecessary for anyone to say it, it’s especially not cool for them to.

We Out Here,

Josh A


*Do to the charged racial nature of this post, I have disabled the comments. I would love to have a respectful, intellectual debate with you guys, even with those who disagree with me. But unfortunately, there are people who lurk waiting to troll pieces like this. I’ve had some really vitriolic comments on one post in particular, and I won’t make that mistake again. Have a great day and stay blessed.

Categories: JoshArticles, Politics

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