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It's almost the end of 2019 and this is not a complicated issue. There is only one simple pre-requisite for using the N-word: one must be Black.
The criteria is never that you are a non-white, it is always whether you are Black.
When I first moved to the DMV area, I immediately clicked with a Laotian-Cambodian man at our crappy retail gig. We bonded over our similarly aggressive mothers and co-workers inability to pronounce our names. We hung out pretty regularly for a month before he let it slip. In the midst of an impassioned story, the N-word fell out of his mouth.
I was shocked and uncomfortable. Growing up, no one used the word in my family, and outside of occasionally hearing it on the block from neighborhood kids or music, I rarely heard it. And I never heard it from the mouth of a non-Black person. Well, that’s not entirely true. Growing up in Wisconsin, one is occasionally hit with the drive-by hard "r" when hanging out near the campus.
Nonetheless, never in all my years, had a non-Black person attempted to use the N-word colloquially, adopting my racial slur to make a connection. After getting over my confusion I was immediately enraged. I tore into him. Asking how he would feel, how his mother and ancestors would feel, if I used a racial slur that applied to him. Recognizing the pain he caused, he apologized and our friendship continued.
Years later, while playing a game of charades with a room filled with primarily Black people, a white Latina I had met hours earlier, jokingly exclaimed, “You n****s crazy!” One of the Black men in the room laughed and slapped her five. You could feel the room tighten as all the other Black people in the room cringed. It is always mind-boggling when a non-Black person feels comfortable saying that word in front of multiple Black people they have never met. It was as if the first Black person who granted her the privilege to use the word bestowed upon her a laminated all-inclusive pass that had no expiration date. But to get the gift, she had to turn over her common sense.
Needless to say, charades was ruined. The next hour was spent with multiple Black people explaining to her why it was not her word to use, and in between a disingenuous apology, she described her experiences as a minority in a failed attempt to “relate.”
In an effort to dispell the idea that non-Black POCs can adopt the N-word, let’s go over a couple common responses. I've often heard non- Black people say, “But my Black friend lets me say it!” Well, If you have a Black friend, who allowed you to say the N-word in their presence, have enough respect for them to limit your use of the word to only in their presence. No, it is not your word to say with your non-Black friends. No, it is not your word to say with your family. It is absolutely not your word to use in front of other Black people who have not granted you the privilege. This is a big one guys, and it is genuinely odd to me that this even needs to be addressed.
Specifically to my “conscious” non-Black POCs, you should know better. You understand micro-aggressions, you give impassioned speeches about white supremacy, ending police brutality, the vile war on drugs and the prison-industrial complex. What a clear example of cognitive dissonance to then turn around and place Black people in the awkward predicament of hearing you co-opt a word used to oppress their ancestors, under the guise that you are an ally and supporter. Furthermore, Black people who let their non-Black friends say the N-word, get heat from other Black people; have the decency to keep their secret.
Another thing I've heard non-Black people say to justify using the word is, “But everybody uses it. All Black people use it.” To that I would respond by using the rapper Eminem as an example. He has made a successful career, over two decades long, in the leading N-word industry without saying the word. I am a Black woman, and I’ve led a beautiful life sans the word. It’s genuinely not a struggle.
I’ve figured out who is at fault. Contrary to the belief that rap music is where non-Blacks learned to comfortably say the N-word, at dinner parties amongst Black people is where I believe the culprit is far more elusive. It didn’t begin with NWA. No, my theory is this began with suburban Black kids who would never dare use the N-word in their parents’ homes, but allowed all of their non-Black friends to say it, creating a false narrative that the N-word is fair game so long as you drop that “r.” This is not true.
We do not all the use word. We are not all OK with the word. At the minimum, have enough empathy to understand that although the media shows you one version of Blackness, it is not a complete reflection of how we feel, who we are and what causes us pain. For many of us, that word is painful, with or without the "r."
It does not matter that you are from Mexico or the Philippines, or that you grew up in a Black community. Believing that because you are not white that all Black people will embrace your use of the N-word is flawed logic.
Suggestion: maybe try adopting a racial slur that was used to oppress your own ancestors.
I believe as a minority in this country, it should be easy to understand that all too often we are made out to be a monolithic group. We are not. Respect my plight as I respect yours.
P.S. One’s proximity to Black genitals in no way affects the aforementioned analysis, either.
Pierrea Naketa is a midwest transplant living in D.C. She is a law school graduate, organizer, and writer and the Founder of Play In The Sun, an anti-colorism organization.