My White Conversation About The N-Word, Pt. 1 – An “Ask Mr. Philosopher” Special

It was a brisk spring evening and after class, a buddy and I were hanging out at a local bar.  Usually when he and I talk, things inevitably come to some sort of race discussion.  And no, I’m not the one bringing it up (usually).  And yes, he’s white.  He’s also the kind of white guy that’s aware of the social boundaries but does want to push them, at times just for the sake of argument.  He’s also second generation immigrant on one side of his family so he offers a unique perspective on cultural issues.  He’s never offended me even though we’ve had some very good back-and-forth on contentious issues (such as his claim that African-Americans is not the right name for the current group of slave descendants – claiming simply American would be more accurate because the connection to Africa was, unfortunately, severed.  I responded that ancestry is enough – Korean-Americans trace their ancestry back to Korea, Filipino-Americans to the Philippines, etc.  Due to the severed connection, African-Americans might not be able to claim a certain country – hence Kenyan-American designating someone born in Kenya, not in America – but both on good faith because of the severed connection and ancestry, the title still fits.  We went back and forth about this for awhile).  This particular repartee was no different, as he took a swig of his beer and asked me, “Why can’t white people say the N word?

I’d kind of seen this coming – our conversations had grown in, we’ll say, depth, since the first time race and Black culture and social issues came up in our conversations.  And don’t get me wrong – this is valuable mental exercise for me.  It’s like going to the gym and doing calisthenics for your mind when you have to give, evaluate, and criticize arguments on the fly.  He knows that too, not to mention I think he’s got a curiosity about “the other side,” and because I’m not the normal Black guy he’s seen, he thinks I can provide a unique perspective that will confirm some thoughts about Black culture.  Combine that with my intrigue about how white people argue against some of the social causes that directly impact Black people (e.g., Affirmative Action), his brazen honesty and willingness to put forth difficult arguments for the sake of arguments, and we tend to have thought provoking conversations on both sides, which is why I was alright with going forward.  Part of me did want to say, “Can’t a nigga just drink his beer in peace?” and cut the conversation off, but discourse is highly important to becoming a better philosopher and to learning in general, so what the hell.[1]

“I mean, you CAN say it, but I suggest you be prepared to deal with the consequences,” was my initial reply.  We laughed (I was serious) but he rephrased to be more specific about asking why there should still be this stigma for this word such that it’s a bigger social taboo than calling someone a fag (depending on who you ask) or even a cunt (again, depending on who you ask.[2]  He was a proponent of what I call, “The Country’s Changed” argument – things aren’t what they used to be, Black people are accepted (he argues for assimilation at a later date) here and there’s no reason to keep hold of the past, it’s onward and upward and there are plenty of Black people who have been able to improve, so let’s not say that everybody is being denied a seat at the table.  You know, because the country’s changed.[3]

It’s colorblindness and that’s not something I agree with because it can lead dangerously right back into the same unbalanced power dynamic by ignoring the realities and the history of race in this country.  That aside, he was making an interesting social point about the country changing.  Hip hop is pop culture now.  Jay-Z is a media titan, and a famous actress tweeted “Ni**as in Paris for real” in reference to his song title and a picture of The-Dream, 2 Hov associates and herself.   White people at rap concerts say “Nigga” in the song lyrics alongside many of their fellow Black fans, ESPECIALLY if the rapper gives them permission.  At a Kanye concert back in college when “Gold Digger” was out, he yelled to the Atlanta audience, “White people!  This is the only time you’ll be allowed to say nigga!”  And, yes, the white people sung along about girls not being with broke niggas, with no remorse.  Some with big, shit-eating grins like, “Finally!  I’ve been waiting to say this in public forever!  AND nobody’s gonna get mad because the guy onstage said I can do it!  It’s been my dream!”  Nevertheless, the concept of white people saying nigga and getting away with it isn’t new.  But saying it without having to get away with it is another idea, and that’s what my buddy wanted to know.  Judging by the success of “Niggas in Paris,” as the Slate piece mentions, there’s definitely something changing about the moral status of the N-word.

You’ve heard his case and you’ve seen the evidence, so how would you respond to him?  Is he right that white people should be able to say it and not be fearful of retribution?  Or is there a better case to be made that white people shouldn’t say the N-word?

The conversation definitely got interesting, and the rest is coming later this week but what would you say if you were me?  Would you even get into this conversation?  Would you be offended?  Has the country changed enough that white people can say “nigger”….again?  Comment and share with others, your thoughts and intuitions about what you would do in this situation are sure to be fascinating.

[1] I actually, except for this blog, I guess, don’t say “nigga” in front of white people.  This year I said it in two classes, but I was actually saying “nigger” and they were both quotes from texts.  Oddly enough, both were contemporary texts.  Nevertheless, I don’t say it in front of white people because I don’t want to encourage their usage.  Call me old school.  That argument courtesy of the soon-to-be-married BNT (congrats!).

[2] Both words hurt and offend, obviously, but I’m pretty sure the average white person would blurt those out before blurting out “nigger” or any derivation in front of people.

[3] The argument does appreciate the fact that there has been a terrible history in this country for people of color, especially people of African descent, but it emphasizes the growth that’s occurred in just the 50 years since major Civil Rights reform and effectively surmises that future generations will be more and more tolerant because of the reality of the melting pot in America (e.g., growth of Hispanic population, increase in mixed families, more interaction between Blacks and whites in a generally non-racially tense atmosphere on a daily basis).


6 thoughts on “My White Conversation About The N-Word, Pt. 1 – An “Ask Mr. Philosopher” Special

  1. Schopenwhore says:

    (My answer is specific to the US): I guess the better question is “WHY would a white person WANT to be able to say that word??” That black people use the word amongst themselves seems completely irrelevant to this issue. For instance, my partner and I have a pet name for one another: “Noodles”. I don’t see why someone not in my relationship would want to call me “Noodles” simply because s(he) found out my partner calls me that, especially if s(he) knows that it is a term of affection peculiar to our relationship. Now add to this the history behind the N-word and there’s even more of a mystery as to why a white person would ever want to use the word. For instance, women will routinely give compliments to other women (strangers) when out and about such as “I love your dress. Where did you get it?” or “You look so cute in that outfit!”, or just normal chit-chat etc. It would be strange if I, let’s say I am a man, would now want to go up to a female stranger and tell her how cute she is, completely ignoring the reality of male-on-female violence. I can’t say or do the same thing females do in this situation because I represent a member of a group that harms women so NATURALLY (and RIGHTFULLY) the female might recoil in horror as I approach. There is asymmetry in the situation depending on the power dynamics of the people involved. In a country where we still don’t take rape seriously, it’s ridiculous to try to force women to be okay with a man randomly approaching them and talking about their outfit. Similarly, some black people address one another with the N-word type greeting. It would be strange if I, let’s say I am a white person, would now want to go up to a black person and say “whaddup, N****!”, completely ignoring the reality of our history and the STILL EXISTENT oppression of blacks. In a country where we still don’t take racism seriously (people don’t even know what the damn word means), it’s ridiculous to expect the majority of black people to be okay with a white person calling them the N-word! So, that’s why I ask, why in the hell would a white person even want to use the word? Why is this issue even on any white person’s mind?!

  2. Brian Fullford says:

    Is it the case that anyone can say “nigger” and its use can be friendly or mean but not oppressive? What I’m getting at is that the use of a word may be strictly endearing or hurtful towards a specific individual an not a group of them.

  3. “There’s definitely something changing about the moral status of the N-word.”

    I think the source of the change is not so much about the moral status of anything as it is what “the N-word” really is. As time goes on and as more non-black people are exposed to the word and hip-hop culture in general, we’re seeing a greater and greater split between “nigger” the slur and “nigga” as in dude or whatever. We might think it’s in poor taste for a white person to tweet “niggas in Paris,” but does anyone really think that that’s even remotely similar to tweeting “niggers in Paris”?

    Out here in the former Soviet Union (specifically Georgia the country), it’s not uncommon for people to stop black people on the street and say something like “What’s up, nigga?” Petty stereotyping aside, what’s notable about this is that these people, who usually know very little English, are aware of this word only in its dude-meaning, and don’t have the slightest idea that the word is offensive. If unbiased outsiders can’t see any connection between the two meanings, maybe it’s because there isn’t much of one.

    On a related note, you might be interested in a post I made about a Georgian word which might or might not be a slur:


  4. I appreciate your blog and really like the journal style. I was called Nigger on Sunday and it pulled me out of dry spell of blogging. I think hell no can white people say any form on the n word and it be ok other then in educational dialogue. just my 2 cents

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