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The Daily Tar Heel

Explained: Why you can't say the N-word if you're not Black

Just in case you needed some clarification after reading our editorial last week, we thought we’d give you a more detailed explanation.

We believe that, “No” should be a sufficient response and justification on its own. Yes, we did write that editorial to be provocative, incendiary or however you would like to characterize it. However, we also genuinely believe that if a Black person tells you “No” in response to “Can I use the N-word if I’m not Black?”, that it’s an acceptable answer. Anything more is emotional and intellectual labor that you can do for yourself. 

However, we are willing to put this piece together for those of you who toss around the N-word, but aren’t willing to do a Google search when someone tells you that it’s offensive.

The first, and simplest, reason is that there is no equivalent for white people. There is no word that, if levied against a white person, triggers a history of enslavement or comparable trauma.

We know what you’re thinking, “What about the word cracker?” Well, the most recent etymological evolution of this word was used to refer to someone who was a “whip-cracker.” Take two seconds to connect the dots, and you’ll soon realize that this word is only offensive if you’re working through some white guilt. 

Basically, the word cracker is nowhere near the same level. If you disagree, there’s a reason why nobody hesitates to say "cracker," while you'll be pressed to find a person who doesn't refer to the anti-Black slur as “the N-word”. 

Secondly, the N-word is a classic example of the reclaiming of language through the subversion of its power. Essentially, when Black communities reclaimed this word, they flipped it on its head and used it as a tool of camaraderie to the point where the word lost its power over them. 

This has been seen in many marginalized groups. Take the word “faggot,” for example. Gay men and others in the LGBTQ+ community toss this word around in a joking, almost endearing way. The more it is used in this manner among queer people, the less power it has over them when it is used as a slur.

When the F-word is used in a derogatory manner by a straight person, it’s extremely offensive. That's because when the word is used in this way, similarly to the N-word, it acts as a reflection of the existing power dynamics in society. 

In the context of the N-word, the power behind the word is reflective of more than just slave times ⁠— it carries a history of institutionalized, racial discrimination against Black people that has yet to be fully eliminated from society.

Basically, we’re not just upset about it being a mean word. The racial discrimination that the N-word reinforces is tangible and affects the mental and emotional well-being of Black people and their finances, too. Whether it is the use of subprime mortgages to deny or stiff-arm Black families into predatory housing situations, the persistent employment discrimination that we see in hiring practices or the fact that the median Black wealth will be $0 in 2053, it is clear that resources are being denied to Black communities. All you are being denied is the use of a word in rap songs.

When a population is denied ownership of tangible goods in society, the ownership of language can be a powerful and empowering thing. While many white folks have strong opinions on this matter, it’s really not their issue to weigh-in on. When one tries to police Black communities’ use of language, they are reasserting their implicit moral authority as a non-Black American.

So while you may not be personally responsible for racial inequity in America, and you may not be able to personally make reparations, the least you can do is refrain from actively robbing Black people of their ownership of the N-word.

So, can you use the N-word if you’re not Black? No. Just, no. 

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