Dear White People: Yes, It’s Offensive When You Say It

“Apparently, a bigger issue than…the problems that face us that the president was discussing…was that he said the word ‘nigger’.”

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During the summer of 2015, Marc Maron invited onto his WTF podcast the 44th leader of the free world, President Barack Hussein Obama. They quickly cycled through a lot of topics, including things that the president has discussed before, like his upbringing and policies and issues that are particularly close to his heart.

One of those issues was racism.

“Racism. We are not cured of it,” President Obama said. “And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say ‘nigger’ in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t overnight completely erase everything that happened 200-300 years prior.”

Guess which part of that the news cycle ran with the next day.

Apparently, a bigger issue than criminal justice reform, police brutality, indiscriminate housing and job opportunity, minimum sentencing, the privatization of prisons, and the mass incarceration of minorities, and the problems that face us that the president was discussing…was that he said the word ‘nigger’.

Apparently.

Racism. We are not cured of it,” President Obama said. “And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say ‘nigger’ in public.

So there’s this confusion about “nigger”, and the inevitable question, “Why’s it okay for you to say it, and not me?” as if it’s a privilege of sorts that we are refusing to share. Let’s break it down.

Yes, white people, it is offensive when you say it. 

I hope you’ll have noticed by now that I have said the word “nigger” and not “the N word” more than once in this article, and that’s because it’s not a spooky word. There’s nothing mystical about it.

But there’s a simple and solid reason that black people don’t take well to your use of the word ‘nigger’: You don’t share in the experiences of black Americans, and people have the right to define their own experiences. 

For example, sometimes I write about LGBT issues, but I don’t write from a position of being able to speak for a gay person. I don’t pretend I’m in that experience. I certainly don’t use words like “faggot” or “dyke” outside of the context that I just did, which is simply saying them, because those are words that have been used to harm the LGBT community.

For example, sometimes I write about LGBT issues, but I don’t write from a position of being able to speak for a gay person. I don’t pretend I’m in that experience.

If at some point, they decide that they would like to re-purpose those words and wring a new meaning from them, then that’s fine, but it still doesn’t make it okay for me to indiscriminately use them, given that I do not share in their experience.

The same is true for black people. This also explains why in certain cases, people believe that it’s okay for white, Chinese, or Hispanic people to use “nigger”, because they perceive certain individuals as having similar experiences that allow them to “enter” a community.

“Nigger” has been used for centuries to denigrate black people, so the reason I “get to” say it is that I get to decide what it means.

That is where black people take their power from, the repositioning of a weapon used to harm them into a tool for social cohesion, describing their own experience, and sapping it of its power.

So the next time you ask, “Why can black people use the word ‘nigger’ and I can’t?”, just bear in mind that what you’re really asking is, “Why don’t I get to define someone else’s experience?”

And then ask yourself if that’s really the kind of question you want to be seen asking.

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3 thoughts on “Dear White People: Yes, It’s Offensive When You Say It”

  1. I completely agree. The way I see it, the word “nigger” is an insult no matter whether people are using it as a term of endearment or not and insults should not be thrown about lightly. And yes, I did just say that someone can use an insult as a term of endearment. I’ve seen friends call each other “asshole” or “bitch” in all friendliness. The atmosphere always has a tinge of humor to it because of the irony from the fact that the person is using a hateful term to address someone they love. It’s like cheap insult comedy. From what I’ve seen with black people calling each other “nigger”, there is definitely that sense of endearment and familiarity, and in some cases there’s the same ironic tinge. It could be that when people first started re-appropriating the term, they used it more ironically. It could be that a large enough portion of black people enjoyed a dark (or black, hehe) sense of humor and perhaps this sense of humor helped them cope with injustices in America.

    Let me know your thoughts about this theory on the re-appropriation of the term “nigger”. It complements your explanation, since by using a term ironically you are sapping that term of its power.

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    1. Haha, nice use of “black” humor. 🙂

      I definitely think you’re on the right track, though. The irony is what kind of makes that a thing, and I think that hints at the fact that with especially sensitive words, context and intent matters. If I say to another black person, “my nigga”, it really does mean a different thing than when someone says, “…dirty, good for nothing nigger.”

      And for some reason, a lot of white people don’t get this. They think it’s the exact same when they say it, but it’s not. It’s not the same because you have built zero credibility with that person and they don’t even vaguely think that you have any understanding of their experience, and therefore, have no right to authoritatively use language that was once used to harm them and was then repurposed by them as a means of subversion.

      They’re all, “It’s not fair,” and it’s like, “There’re a lot of things that aren’t fair, it’s not exactly fair that these people were oppressed for hundreds of years by people who look like you and used this word….so MAYBE instead of rudely shoving yourself in there, you could just give them space to use that word how they would like and re-define their own experience…maybe.”

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      1. It’s like they’re saying, “Aww, but why can’t I insult people?” And the correct answer is, “You can, but don’t be surprised when the people you insult get offended.” No one is forcing anyone else to be polite or respectful, but words carry baggage whether we like it or not and the word “nigger” carries the baggage of hundreds of years of dehumanization. When a white person calls someone “nigger” even if its in a playful way, they are being disrespectful and vulgar and they shouldn’t be appalled when they are then treated as a disrespectful and vulgar person.

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