JENKINS: Why white people can’t use the N-word

A "What's the Word" Column

In high school I gave a lot of white friends permission to use the N-word by passively failing to address the habit. I think I almost celebrated white people cool enough to say the word fluidly as if they were black. But foolishly I forgot they invented the word; it has always been natural for them to use it. This article is not an endorsement of using the N-word among black people. However, it does serve to debunk the false notion that white people have an equal right to it. I have some very close white friends who maintain they have somehow earned the right to use the word just as their black peers do — a word that was historically and is presently used as a term of hatred by portions of the white community. I do not care if one cuts the “er” ending and replaces it with an “a” to lessen its severity. A white person can never earn the right to call me their “n—.” It is the whitewashing of black history that explains the reason many fail to comprehend why it will never be acceptable. Its usage by white people is an affront to the progress we have made, not a tribute to colorblindness.

My white peers argue there is a double standard in the current practice of barring white people from saying a word so common in the black vernacular. However, white people are not entitled to equality in every arena while black people continue to suffer at the hands of institutional discrimination. Our people are killed by police nine times more often than our white counterparts, and one in 13 black men is disenfranchised of voting rights. You do not get to be the benefactor of equality, yet the conductor of inequality. The perceived double standard only further demonstrates an unfortunate behavior associated with white America — disregarding fairness so long as it does not infringe upon white entitlement to privilege. If my white counterparts who fight for their right to use the N-word cared about fairness and double standards, they would focus on addressing one of the issues I listed above. But if they can’t say “n—,” then life is unfair? To that, I can do nothing but shake my head at the hypocrisy.

The assertion is contradictory to norms of communication. Jay Smooth explains in his video blog “Ill doctrine” that appropriate communication has always been determined by the relationships involved. While Prince Harry may call the Queen of England “granny,” it would be absurdly inappropriate for me to do the same. A man may refer to his girlfriend by some given pet name, but it would be awkwardly inappropriate for a stranger also to use that language in reference to her. Similarly, the relationship black people have with one another and our shared history with the N-word affords the in-group an ability to do something the out-group cannot. In-group and out-group dynamics are not double standards. They are accepted protocols of society to limit offense. While explicit exclusion may have substantive consequences of inequality, I hardly think this rule would qualify.

The love of rap and hip-hop does not give license to use the word. Dating a black man or woman does not give license to use the word, and having many black friends does not give license to use the word. No matter the circumstance surrounding your upbringing, you are not black despite the privileged thought that the world is your kingdom in which you can appropriate anything you’d like. I hope my white peers are willing now to sit, listen and learn from the ongoing dialogue of their black peers about the proliferation of the word. I understand it is hard not to have a voice, and I understand it is difficult not to make the rules. But maybe this is a step toward empathizing with my everyday experience. How does it feel?


VJ Jenkins is a guest writer for The Cavalier Daily and Black Student Alliance’s weekly “What’s the Word” column.

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