What Happens When Whites Get an N-Word Pass

Paris Hilton and Richie Incognito felt comfortable using a heinous racial slur because the black community gave them license to do so.

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Paris Hilton

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Since Kim Kardashian replaced her as America’s sex-tape superstar-turned-reality-show celebrity du jour, Paris Hilton has spent much of the last few years battling to remain relevant and to stop her descent into becoming a Hollywood punch line. But she recently earned ridicule for a surprising reason: her positive review of the film 12 Years a Slave. Hilton tweeted:

Since 12 Years a Slave is one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year, it is hardly surprising that someone would have positive things to say about the film. So why was Hilton’s review newsworthy? Well, because years ago Hilton became infamous in certain circles for spewing racial epithets on camera, including the n-word. Emphasis on “certain circles.”

Despite Hilton being caught on camera ridiculing blacks and Jews and saying the n-word, Hilton never faced any significant backlash at the height of her fame. After she dodged questions about the rumored videos for a significant period of time, when the videos finally surfaced online, Hilton’s publicist released a statement:

I’m not going to make any attempt to spin this. It happened. I’m not going to deny it happened. Each of us has used words we have regretted later. This was six years ago. She was 20 at the time. It was New Year’s Eve. She had been obviously drinking. She sincerely regrets using those words. She is not a racist or an anti-Semite.

This nonapology apology, released in 2008, when Hilton was still relatively relevant, might have been more convincing had it come from Hilton herself. Instead, she has never, to my knowledge or based on any reports I could find, apologized for her language.

Although a few civil rights groups pressed the issue—including GLAAD, which was particularly critical of her use of gay slurs as well—Hilton was able to skate by, enjoying her celebrity and never being challenged for her language during the countless interviews she did during this time period, even on programs with black co-hosts, like The View and the Today show.

So why was Hilton given a pass for her offensive language, when others, like Don Imus, found their careers torpedoed for using less controversial language? Well, unlike Imus, Hilton conveniently surrounded herself with black celebrities, many of whom did nothing to challenge her blatant racial insensitivity.

Since her n-word noncontroversy controversy, Hilton has collaborated with the likes of rapper Lil Wayne and shot videos with Nicki Minaj to boost her fledgling music career. She also parties with Snoop Dogg. It’s as though Hilton inoculated herself from legitimate proof that she is a racist at worst, racially insensitive at best, by using hip-hop stars as a protective shield. In other words, the message she aimed to convey—and seems to have done successfully—is, “If they think I’m cool, then you should, too. N-word or no n-word.”

Of course, the problem is that a privileged white woman mocking black people and black culture, particularly through use of the n-word, will never be cool. But that message will be delivered only when our community a) stops giving n-word passes to so-called cool whites and b) stops using the word altogether. (I once had a conversation with an African American who knows Hilton and argued that it’s possible she picked up casual use of the word from the African Americans she heard using it. I find this defense hard to believe, but the fact that it’s not an implausible theory is certainly part of the problem.)

This issue is much bigger than some bubble-headed and ultimately harmless heiress on the last legs of her 15 minutes of fame. After all, reports recently surfaced that alleged NFL bully Richie Incognito’s use of the n-word toward Dolphins teammate Jonathan Martin was defended by an anonymous (presumably black) teammate who labeled Incognito an “honorary black man.”

As long as members of our community dole out these ridiculous, arbitrary “honorary” passes, we will continue to experience incidents of arbitrary racism from people convinced they are too “cool” to ever truly be racist.

But no matter how many times some people see 12 Years a Slave, or how many rappers they hang with or how well they toss a ball, if they are a little too comfortable using the n-word casually, then that means they are not cool as people, and they certainly aren’t cool with our community.

And you’re a fool if you think they are. 

Keli Goff is The Root's special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.

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