The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.
While promoting his book We Were Eight Years in Power in 2017, Ta-Nehisi Coates touched upon the importance of owning words. During a Q&A panel, the author responded to a question from an audience member about white people using the N-word. He answered simply, “Words don’t have meaning without context, okay?”
To be clear, the historical context of the N-word is irrefutably embedded in imperial thought that, by and large, sought to other black African slaves from white U.S. citizens. Plain and simple — it was and is a slur. Today, what remains highly contested about its use is the union of its historical context with an evolved cultural context — all the while maintaining its racist underpinning.
Across fields such as cinema and music, the term has often been popularized by black artists in the context of reclaiming it, typically as a term of endearment between black men. That said, it’s important to note that such reclamation doesn’t automatically strip away its historical weight, and therein lies the issue.
It’s here that Coates illustrates a very important point: Words have different meanings to different people, dependent on the context. And it’s here that, when white people ask, “Can I say the N-word?” I reply, “No.” Here’s why.
Not all words are for everyone
During his talk, Coates points out that “it’s normal, actually, for groups to use words that are derogatory in an ironic fashion.” Here he cites his wife calling her close female friends “bitches,” or queer-identifying people using the word “faggot.” In both cases, the historical meaning of the word has been overlooked voluntarily due to a different cultural context.
Most importantly, this reclamation is undertaken by the very group affected by a slur’s former connotation. In his talk, Coates flips the question: “Why [do] so many white people have difficulty extending things that are basic laws of how human beings interact to black people?”
He continues: “When you’re white in [the U.S.], you’re taught that everything belongs to you. You’re conditioned this way […] It’s the fact that the laws and the culture tell you this.”
While white people can lay claim to womanhood and queer identities, they cannot call themselves black. Coates asserts that the frustration of not being able to say the N-word, or at least being called out for using it, is a consequence of having invented it and no longer having access to it.
It’s here that he initiates a dialogue in which we can discuss why non-black people wish to remove the historical importance of the word in favor of a reclamation that isn’t theirs to claim.
Hip-hop and the N-word
Admittedly, black artists within the rap community are divided on whether or not the term should be used so frivolously. Artists such as ScHoolboy Q have spoken candidly about their indifference regarding the word’s use, while the likes of KRS-One have argued that it points to a commonality of oppression shared between black men.
In the context of the genre, Coates argued that being a white hip-hop fan offers insights into what it’s like to live as a black person, to understand what it’s like not to be allowed things others can have freely. The decision of black artists to use the N-word is ultimately up to them, yet the onus on non-black fans is to respect the fact that that aspect of the music isn’t for them.
Publications such as Variety have argued that the word should be thrown out of hip-hop altogether, but in truth, that isn’t the point. The point is that non-black people wish to validate their opinions within a cause that is not theirs to lead, and in turn, they feel ostracized. Coates’ argument is that black people’s very existence functions on a similar level; their lives and opinions are not valued in a community that wasn’t constructed by them.
When a black rapper chooses to use the term, irrespective of whether or not black communities agree with it, the artist does so in the knowledge of his personal and inherited relation to the word. Echoing Coates, a rapper’s relation to the N-word will be starkly different from that of white hip-hop fans because of their inherited connection to the word.
Kendrick Lamar and “the incident”
During his performance at Hangout Festival on May 20, Kendrick Lamar invited fans on stage to perform renditions of his songs, including “M.A.A.D City,” which notably features repeated use of the N-word in the chorus.
One fan, a white girl named Delaney, was filmed saying the word, at which point Lamar stopped her performance and asked her to “bleep one word out.” He then gives her a second chance to perform, only for Delaney to mess up a second time, this time for different reasons. The video made its way around social media and, naturally, opinions were divided.
Some fans and critics argued the fan should have knowingly omitted the word. One user cites how other fans rocked up on stage without using it.
Others argued that Lamar purposefully “set that white girl up,” knowing the song contained the word.
But the point is, while it’s possible to see both sides of the argument, we can at least recognize that Lamar’s relationship to the N-word is his rightful decision as a black person. The fan’s “role” therefore was to understand that, while she can enjoy the music, of course, not everything about it might be for her, and in participating willingly, she ought to have been mindful of what she was saying.
All this is to say that it’s futile to escape the N-word’s historical use and meaning, that what can be done is to stop asking whether or not white people can say it, and ask instead, “Why do white people still have the overwhelming desire to?”