Let’s get straight to it.
If you are not Black and have never had the N-word hurled at you in an attempt to strip you of your humanity, you have no right to (a) say the N-word in any form or (b) participate in any discussion determining if or how Black people can or cannot use the N-word. Anytime you use the N-word as a non-Black person or are complicit in a fellow non-Black peer’s use of the word, you are perpetuating anti-black violence. Period.
For full transparency, I am Black, thus I can say the N-word without being inherently violent towards Black people. My family uses the N-word. I use it when talking to my Black friends. I grew up in a predominantly Black, low-income neighborhood on the west side of Chicago, where my close-knit community provided cultural security and consistent validation of my identity and experiences as part of the shared social, political and economic conditions of the Black working class. Many of my community members shamelessly and unapologetically use the N-word while granting space for other Black people to decide if they want to use the word too.
Originating from a violent national history of anti-black racism, the N-word has since been reclaimed to signify definitive membership to a joint sociopolitical struggle. This reclamation boldly insists that our African American identity is undeniably connected to a unique narrative of political and economic oppression, institutionalized violence and inherited generational trauma that is exclusive to Black people. When non-Black people recklessly engage with the N-word, this behavior can be perceived by Black people as hostility because it triggers this generational emotional trauma. However, when used by Black people and in Black spaces, the N-word’s connotative purpose of inclusion is safely understood and hardly ever ambiguous.
I know that when I’m around other Black people, my identity, humanity and lived experiences will not be considered foreign, exotic, ridiculous or taboo. I don’t have to explain the history of anti-black violence and systemic oppression, or elaborate on the microaggressions, the social anxieties or the unshakable feeling that my body is constantly at risk of being attacked because I am Black. I know I am surrounded by people who can and will affirm my existence because in one way or another they know what it means and how it feels to be Black like me.
As a non-Black person, you may be part of an ethnic group that has also been victimized by white supremacist oppression. You may see your ethnic affiliation as enabling you to identify with Black people. You may have grown up in a particular socioeconomic background or in a predominantly Black neighborhood and you may know what struggle is. Struggle alone, however, does not encapsulate the breadth of the African American experience. Internalizing Black culture, music, art, food, fashion and dialect does not induct you into blackness, and none of this validates your use of the N-word, not even when singing along to music by Black artists. Even if you have a Black friend who is okay with you using the N-word, you still have no cultural claim to it and are not entitled to using it as your own among other Black people. Your one Black friend does not speak on behalf of the entire Black community and cannot plus-one their blackness to account for you.
As a non-Black person, you inevitably benefit from the same anti-black racism that has been used to historically oppressed Black people. This is indisputable. Whenever you use the N-word, you reference a violent history and simultaneously participate in the dehumanization of Black people. Until the social traumas that associate the N-word with America’s violent racial history are addressed and amended on a national scale, this violence will always be present in the word when it is used by non-Black people, even when used in jest or without malicious intent.
Because I am a Black person, I am already hyper-aware of this violent racial history, thus it is not my job to address it but the job of all non-Black allies, both white and ethnically diverse, to do so. Because the word has always been used to oppress me and other Black people specifically, I cannot be violent towards another Black person in the same capacity as a non-Black person who uses the word while benefitting from anti-blackness. Therefore, I use the N-word for the same political reasons that women use the B-word, and gay people use the F-word, and other marginalized groups reclaim slurs used to oppress them — to reappropriate its power. If Black people never found a way to reclaimed this slur meant to inflict racialized violence upon us, we would have continued to be defenseless against it.
When people suggest that nobody should use the N-word, they are acknowledging the existence of the word’s historical violence while failing to consider the ways Black people have created a new relationship to the word that is culturally and socially valid and deserves to be observed. Instead, what they are suggesting is that ignoring these histories is more convenient than recognizing Black humanity and respecting Black peoples’ agency to repurpose these terms if they so choose.
Allies who are prepared to confront these histories will discover that the word will lose its allure. You will be able to see the dark history associated with the word as well as Black peoples’ right to do with it as they please. To counteract non-Black complicity to anti-black violence, allies must speak up on behalf of Black people. If you are a genuine non-Black ally of African Americans, you must understand and accept that this word is perpetually off-limits to you if you hope to gain the trust and respect of your Black peers. You have the privilege of using literally any other word in the world. But Black people are going to go ahead and take this one.
Crislin is 5th year transfer student studying American Studies and focusing on race, youth and education at UC Berkeley. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @creaslean