During the Q&A portion of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book tour promoting his newest release, We Were Eight Years in Power, a white girl at Evanston Township High School asked what she should tell her white friends who thought it was cool to use the “n-word” while rapping. She noted that she thought it was wrong to say, as a white person, but the word is so prevalent in music, she was unsure what to do. Chile, the Lord knows the right people to answer these questions…
My personal favorite answers to these questions range from “Why do you want to say it, knowing it’s hurtful history coming from y’all’s mouths?” to “Them’s the rules,” to “IF YOU DON’T GETCHO (expletive expletive expletive).”
Coates, however, had a much more intelligent, productive answer for the young lady:
I watched the video, while shouting Baptist-church style in my living room, thinking of how just Wednesday night at the Jay-Z concert in Houston, I was looking in shock, horror, and awe at the amount of non-black people who thought it was A-OK to use the word because what, I guess we all love Jay-Z so it’s all good? I literally stopped and looked around after telling Jay what his MF name is (Jigga) and wondered just who was going to go through with telling him who he was rolling with (all his niggas). Everyone told him who he was rolling with, and I decided to no longer look at the audience for the rest of the night, especially during “The Story of O.J.” (which, if non-black people really understood, they would not sing along to).
If you’re wondering why I keep saying “non-black” people instead of something cuter like “non-POC,” it’s because, in the Greek translation, “non-black” means “non-black” and that’s exactly what I meant to type. It bugs me when Latinx people, Asian people, etc. use the n-word too, though not quite to the same extent. One thing that we, as POC, share, is oppression, and the feeling that even if white people have not called those specific ethnic groups by that specific name, it has been implied. That’s where the leniency comes from, but black people are still also aware that other ethnic groups have been more welcome than they in social circles, and many other POC still feel like they’re better than black people.
I remember asking my dad once how he felt about white people using the word, and as Coates said in the beginning of the video, my dad, a man who grew up in the 1960s and experienced blatant racism, said he was not so concerned when his friends used it, because of the context and because he knew they didn’t hate him or think less of him. I understood that, and really respected it coming from someone who endured the weaponization of that word, and probably punched a guy or two over its use. I also, however, respectfully disagree with my white friends using that word around me, or to describe me or anyone else. See, the deal is, while you may be an upstanding white person, there are still white people who think their skin color makes them better than everyone else and who will use that word as a slur.