N-Word, Rap and Black Friends: Awkward?

Race Manners: You can ask your buddies how they feel, but white people are allowed to care about racist terms, too.

Generic image (Bananastock)
Generic image (Bananastock)

Yeah, it’s a lot. No wonder you’re floundering a little.

So, can you talk to the guys you hang out with and make sure you’re not deeply offending them every time you press play? Absolutely, and as a friend, you should be able to. But that won’t solve your whole problem. First, as I said above, one or two people can’t answer for everyone.

Just as important, I don’t think a quick “Hey, hearing Jay-Z at my place doesn’t bother you, does it?” will really get at what your deeper goal is: to have meaningful relationships where you fit in, without taking advantage of your somewhat privileged position and without inadvertently harming anyone.

You have to figure out where you stand on this. As David Leonard, chair of the department of critical culture, gender and race studies at Washington State University at Pullam, puts it, race is often “seen and imagined as a problem of people of color — people of color are responsible for dealing with it, for bringing it up or not bringing it up.”

But that doesn’t have to be the case. 

Consider that you have a right to have an investment in issues surrounding race and language. You, as an American and as a decent person, have the right to find a word that originated in a dehumanizing context (that has residual effects today) unpleasant. Leonard’s advice: “Ask yourself why does it make you uncomfortable, and what can you do to use that discomfort as something to transform yourself and the conditions of racism and our society?”

If you’re not comfortable, as a white male, consuming and repeating this word or with an entire industry profiting off of it, then it wouldn’t be crazy for you to be more selective about what you listen to, your friends’ views aside.

You also have a right to decide that your n-word assessment depends on context and intent and “-ga” versus “-ger” formulations, or on your observations about what it means to those around you. But you want to be able to articulate that for yourself.

What will get rid of your discomfort is to take some ownership, not just of the choices you make about the music that’s played at your house, but of your role as a white man with black friends in a racist society that I guarantee will show its worst side in ways much more urgent than rap lyrics. Do that, and then go ahead and have a real conversation with the guys about it. Just as with music, when it comes to your sincere efforts to be a good friend, I’m willing to bet that they prefer the unedited version.

The Root’s staff writer, Jenée Desmond-Harris, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life — and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her on Twitter. 

Need race-related advice? Send your questions to racemanners@theroot.com.

Previously in Race Manners: “White Writer, Black Characters: Bad Idea?”

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