Gwyneth, the N-Word and Why We're to Blame


(The Root) — At face value, there is nothing truly provocative about a (presumably) intoxicated person committing a social faux pas while partying with her equally intoxicated friends. But since this person is famous and white, and since the faux pas committed happened to involve a word that Farai Chideya once called "the nuclear bomb of racial epithets," we ("we" in this case equals "people who read") are contractually obligated to discuss, dismiss, dissect and deconstruct Gwyneth Paltrow's "N**gas in Paris" tweet from every conceivable angle.

And, as is the case with most stories involving people we'll never meet doing things that will have absolutely no impact on our lives, the discussions about the various takes on Paltrow's "slip" are far more interesting than the actual story itself.


Oh, and before we continue, please join me in continuing not to acknowledge the fact that The-Dream recently stated that he's the true author of the tweet. Even if he's telling the truth — which I'm maybe 97 percent sure he's not, by the way — it doesn't matter. The Twitter account was Paltrow's, and the story will always be hers.

If it seems hypocritical that I mention how inane this story is while writing another story about this story — good. Mission accomplished. As a black person who occasionally uses the word and frequently listens to music incorporating it, I realize that my activity has progressively weakened any moral high ground I'd have about the use of "nigger" or "nigga," and I suspect I'm not alone in feeling this way.

I won't say that our feelings have "evolved" — evolution implies a change both organic and positive, and I'm not so sure that the gradual cultural softening of "nigger" is a good thing — but every time it is used in popular songs written by the president's favorite rappers or freely incorporated by someone speaking in front of an audience that's not all black, a piece of the shield of self-righteous outrage surrounding the word chips off.

Most of the discussion about this story reflects this sentiment as well, as even true militants and people who are still deeply hurt whenever "nigga" or "nigger" is used by any nonblack person preface their feelings with an acknowledgment that this —- nonblacks allowing the word to slip so easily — is partially our fault for making it so ubiquitous, an act that subtly lets anyone who's not black off the hook for thinking it was OK to use the word so freely.

I say "a certain way" because there isn't a word for the Kafkaesque "nigga neurosis" you experience when feeling something is wrong while simultaneously questioning whether you have a right to feel that way and if you're feeling wrong for the appropriate reasons. Many of us still think that, regardless of how "down" and/or well-intentioned they might be, it will always be wrong for nonblacks to say "nigga." But in realizing this, we also realize that the wrongness of "nigger" or "nigga" is dependent on myriad factors, none more important than our continued embrace of it.

Basically, we feel its wrongness on an emotional level while making the intellectual acknowledgment that, well, we probably don't have a right to be that upset. In this sense, nigga neurosis is an extended bout of cognitive dissonance. 


With Paltrow's tweet, the word itself wasn't really offensive. She appears to be guilty of nothing more than feeling a bit too familiar and allowing that familiarity to enable her to make a bad joke — one we all got, but a bad joke nonetheless. What has seemed to offend, though, is that familiarity, a comfort that reeks of arrogance, entitlement and a level of "I'm a down white girl, and it's cool for me to say this" privilege.

But who granted her that status? We did, and I'm not sure if we'll ever be able to take it back.


Damon Young, contributing editor at, is the co-founder of and co-author of Your Degrees Won't Keep You Warm at Night: The Very Smart Brothas Guide to Dating, Mating, and Fighting Crime. Follow him on Twitter.

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Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of He is also a contributing editor at He lives in Pittsburgh and he really likes pancakes. You can reach him at