(The Root) —
“I’m a 34-year-old white male. Me and most of the guys I work with and play in a basketball league with listen to the same music: hip-hop (old and new) and rap. Of course some songs have the n-word in them. I’m one of the only nonblack guys in the group, which has never caused an issue. But as the only white person, I’m uncomfortable when we’re all hanging out and the word comes up in songs, especially when it’s my car or at my apartment. I feel like I’m responsible for it. Am I being paranoid? Part of me thinks it’s fine because I know we all like the same music, but part of me thinks I should have different rules because I’m not black. Should I ask one of my friends? All of them? Thank you in advance for any advice.” –Nonracist Rap Fan
Your question’s a thoughtful one, and probably a common one, too. Although the actual percentage is up in the air, it’s agreed upon that nonblack listeners buy a good chunk of the rap and hip-hop out there — and I’m pretty sure they’re not all limiting themselves to the sanitized radio versions of their favorite songs.
Yes, our still very racially segregated society means that most aren’t singing along to Wu-Tang Clan’s “Shame on a Nigga” while surrounded by the people whom the slur was created to insult. But I’m sure you’re not alone in feeling a little funny about enjoying art — even black-created and black-endorsed art — littered with a term that would brand you as hateful, backward and racist-with-a-capital-R if you uttered it in conversation.
You won’t be surprised that there’s no easy answer. If there were, an informal Twitter poll that I took on this topic wouldn’t have devolved into a debate about the term “white trash,” during which I was called a “welfare mouth.” (What?! But that’s for another column.)
Part of what makes it complicated is that African Americans have wildly divergent feelings about the word. Everyone knows that it has its origins in some of the more disturbing parts of our country’s racist history, but that’s kind of where the agreement ends. It’s actually the perfect reminder that there isn’t a single black view on anything, no big annual meeting where we decide what matters to us and what doesn’t and send out bullet points. But on this topic, I find that views are uniquely unpredictable.
Here is just a handful of takes that I’ve heard from African Americans:
“No one should say it ever.”
“No one should say the word ‘nigger,’ but ‘nigga’ is fine.”
“It depends on context, but the only context that’s OK is when a black person says it.”
“It depends on context but the only context that’s OK is when we know the speaker isn’t being racist.”
“Damn rappers for saying it and giving everyone else permission to say it.”
“Rappers might say it, but that doesn’t mean it works outside of a song.”
“The word has been reclaimed. Get over it.”
“It’s a great term for everyone, male or female, including my dog.”
“No other group would dare answer to such a derogatory name.”