July 19, 2013

Going nuclear with the 'N-bomb'

Guest Post by Jamie Ruff

No, white person, you shouldn't use the 'N-word." . 

I would like to say you can’t, but, of course, it's a free country, as you like to remind us.  So no one can stop you. And I decided a long time ago that white people who seem bothered that they can’t use the N word are probably just bothered that they can’t say publicly what they have always said privately.

For decades there's been a persistent debate among white people, and even some blacks, as to why black people can drop the 'n-bomb' with impunity -- especially since hardcore rap has gone mainstream, and one groundbreaking group -- featuring a guy who's now making millions hawking high-end headphones and rap's angriest young man who now stars in dopey kids' movies and silly beer commercials --  named themselves after it.  

So, let me try again to explain why black people can use the word and why white people shouldn’t. The simple answer is the shared cultural significance of the word -- the historical context between the races.

Don’t get me wrong, there is certainly a stink to the word, a stigma, even when I hear it from one black person to another.  But it is worse when it passes through white lips.

Like it or not, there is a nuance to the N word when black people say it to each other – an expression of love, of anger and frustration, but always of camaraderie -- a bond based on a shared historical experience. Slavery, hardship, discrimination; the investment of blood, sweat and tears in a country that, when it comes to African Americans, has never given as much as it has received. 

By contrast, there has never been any nuance to that word when uttered by a white person.Throughout history, when whites say it, its meaning has dripped with hostility and hate and the promise of violence – worse, violence without any threat of retaliation.

 Historically, when a white person has used the N-word it has been as a metaphorical bullwhip -- a reminder that your blackness makes you as defenseless as whiteness makes them all powerful. When spoken by a white person, the N-word echoes the perception of superiority and the promise that whatever I do to you, I do with unchallenged, unquestioned, merciless and absolute power. It says, 'No cop would arrest me, and if he did, no jury would convict."

I doubt we can imagine for how many black men the N word – uttered or yelled but in whatever case filled with every drop of the hate and hostility that it carries -- was the last thing they heard as they were being beaten to death, shot or lynched.  

The N-word  put you in your place, with the threat of violence to back it up           .

You see, when black people use the N word among themselves –  in jest or in anger – it is not inherently threatening or menacing, but an acknowledgement that the lash of the word and all that comes with it (last hired, first fired; higher incarceration rates despite similar rates of criminal activity) has been felt, and probably will be again. 

But when the N word is spoken by a white person – be it whispered, uttered, yelled or even written – it is a reminder to the historically powerless of their relationship with the historically powerful.

That’s why we can use it and you can’t. It’s as simple as that.

I tell you what, white people, when the N word stops meaning what we all know it means, I’ll have no problem with you yelling it from the rooftops and dropping it into everyday conversations. But something tells me that if it didn’t have the same meaning, so many of you wouldn't feel so pressed to use it.

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