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’.
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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