Part 1 – For White People
Part 2 – For Black People
(Yes you can read both. This ain’t apartheid South Africa.)
While waiting for the train in the small town of Sete, Southern France, I broke into song, as I tend to do sometimes.
“I see you driving round town with the girl I love, and I’m like…”
Yup, the song was “Forget You” by Cee Lo Green, and almost as fast as I started singing it, I stopped. But it was too late. The little group I was with had already joined in. Earlier, during our hike, we had bonded over our mutual love for the song “Habits” by Tove Lo, myself- a Caribbean black female – a white American female, a white South African female and a “coloured” South African female. The white south african was visiting her friend and the american and I were invited to tag along for the hike.
Back to the song, the white american had caught my drift and stopped singing too, just before the point of contention. She’s American, I suppose she’s used to self-censoring for the sake of not being offensive. But the South African white girl, who I’d actually just met that day, kept right on singing the song.
“Oh yeah, she’s a golddigger.
Just thought you should know, nigger.”
And in that moment, I had a choice. I could choose to bring it up, or I could choose to let it go. Here was this white girl from one of THE most racially divided countries in the world, using the N word around a black person she literally did not know from Malcolm X. I felt disrespected, and I wanted nothing more than to ask her why she felt so comfortable using that word around me. Clearly me stopping was indication for her to stop. Clearly she disregarded that on purpose.
But we had all had such a nice day together, and I knew if I brought it up, and she said anything besides “I’m sorry” and more along the lines of “Why is it a big deal”, I would lose my shit. Then I would become the angry black girl. Then I would be using the race card. Even if I tried to have a normal conversation and educate her on why it’s different when she uses it, her level of receptiveness would determine if we remembered this day as a good one or not. But now, a couple years later, she can read this article on the nuances of the n word, and finally understand how I feel.
White people, hear ye, hear ye, you cannot use the word “nigger” or the word “nigga”. And we know you’re gonna use it anyway, since it’s so cool, and after all it’s prevalent in the hip songs you know and love, so let me be more specific. You should not use the word around a black person. Casually mentioning it is disrespectful, and addressing them by it is basically saying “You tryna fight right now?” Not every black person is a black American. Some black people are from other regions, for example Caribbean or African countries, where use of the word is merely occasional, or even frowned upon, rather than some kind of cultural staple. And of course, you cannot tell where a black person is from until you ask them. In any case, not all black Americans are fond of the word. There is ongoing discussion within the community on whether the word should be erased from the culture, and you are not a part of this discussion.
Why is it disrespectful, you ask, when you guys use it? Because your ancestors invented the word as a badge of shame, to denote savage animalistic inferiority as contrasted with white humane goodness. They used it throughout slavery, throughout segregation, and to this present day, to insult an entire race of people. As a result, when you as a white person, utter the word in the presence of a black person, it shows that you are dismissive of historical atrocities, and all you care about is your “right” to “freedom of speech.” It does not help you relate better to us. It does not make us feel like you’re “one of us”. It is insulting, period.
Best practice for white people using the n word, because once again, we know you will. In a perfect world you would just remove it from your vocabulary completely, but if you absolutely must, do it at home, in private. Do it in the presence of other white people that you know. Do not use it in public or around a black person. If your black friend allows you to use the word around him, do it around that friend only, without assuming other black people also won’t mind. Your friend did not telepathically let us all know that you are a “cool white person”. Your good intentions do not seep through your pores.
If you’re wondering why must I censor myself so that someone else won’t be offended? The level of offensiveness here is not circa 2017, where it seems basically everything is now offensive. This is our dictionary definition of offensive, with a legacy of pain, death and pure evil behind it. Selectively denying yourself the ability to use one word around a specific group of people, does not mean that you are living in oppression. It is no great burden to bear, but merely a common courtesy that should be extended to your fellow man. It says, I acknowledge the crime of slavery, I acknowledge that as a white person I benefit from those years of slavery, and so I will not disrespect you and your ancestors by using this word in your presence. It’s a simple courtesy that costs you nothing, and maintains peaceful interpersonal relations.
Anything else is a deliberate choice that will not be taken lightly.
‘When you removed the gag that was keeping these black mouths shut, what were you hoping for? That they would sing your praises? Did you think that when they raised themselves up again, you would read adoration in the eyes of these heads that our fathers had forced to bend down to the very ground? Here are black men standing, looking at us, and I hope that you – like me – will feel the shock of being seen.’
-Jean Paul Sartre, Black Orpheus