The N Word: (Part 2) It’s more than Black and White

Knowing what I know about American history it is pretty obvious that for White people the word meant “slave, animal, property, inferior.” As time went on and stereotypes of Black people became more mature the N-word became shorthand for all the prejudices held that Black people were subhuman, bestial, lazy, ignorant, and uneducated.

When White people used it they intentionally meant to conjure up these stereotypes. It carried the force of hundreds of years of oppression and it carried the sentiment that just on the basis of skin color alone a Black person was not human, not fit for society, and that his/her life was meaningless. White people carried out and tolerated the arbitrary murder of Black people without consequence until at least the 1970s. So for any White person wondering why maybe it’s not a good idea for them to use the word this is a start.

As a Black man who doesn’t use the word, I also take issue with Black people using it. In fact, it was comical to me when Common tried to defend the use of the word in songs while clearly admitting that it was a horrible word. He basically said that young people would have difficulty understanding him if he didn’t use the word. As if somehow the N-word magically makes English more accessible to youth in urban areas. The concept itself would be hilarious if we weren’t talking about something so serious.

But I digress. For us to really understand why Black people should refrain from using the word, we have to be honest about how we came to use it in the first place. I think I can safely say that the N-Word was most likely the first English word that enslaved Africans learned. Given how they were treated, I doubt they thought the word meant anything endearing. However, they were at the mercy of White people and adopted the language of their so-called masters. They learned English the way White people spoke it. Therefore, the word was passed down from generation to generation. Black people have been using the word to describe each other almost as long as the word has been in existence.  In the Black community the word existed as an insult. If you were Black and another Black person called you the N-word then they were essentially calling you lazy or ignorant, or they were saying that you were acting exactly how White people expected you to act which again was uncivilized or uncouth. This was not a term of endearment. It was a term of disgust.

But over time interesting things happen with terms of disgust. People take them up in rebellion. So if somebody calls me a fool long enough. In anger I might say “I’ll show you exactly what kind of fool I can be.” Essentially, this is what happened with the N-word. It became a word of angry rebellion spoken by the people most likely to be scarred by it. How else do you go from older generations of Black people generally rejecting any identification with the word to younger generations embodied by NWA using it with each other in familiar ways? Let me point out I’m not saying the trend started with NWA, it started long before that. But I am saying NWA embodied it.

There can be no doubt that NWA (N-word With Attitudes) is a phrase steeped in angry rebellion. The individuals in NWA are counted among the founding fathers of gangsta rap. Gangsta rap isn’t anything if it isn’t angry. The anger in gangsta rap captivated youth of all racial and ethnic groups. But where did the anger come from?  The anger came out of the deep disenchantment that young African Americans had with mainstream America’s refusal to acknowledge them as human beings whose lives mattered. It came from anger about mainstream America’s refusal to recognize the racist effects of economic policies. It came from anger about mainstream America’s blind eye toward persistent inequalities in opportunities, treatment by the justice system, and racial brutalization. It came from not having answers to existential questions like “Why is my life this way?” and “Why does it seem like no one cares about the craziness that goes on here everyday?”

It came from a sad capitulation to the idea that maybe the only way to get any attention is to draw negative attention. Subconsciously, I might think that if I use words people consider negative long enough and loud enough then maybe someone will come and check on me. It’s how words like thug, gangsta, and goon, become cool. And we’ve already established that the N-word is the most offensive phrase of them all. NWA was young black men saying “Since you think I’m an N-word anyway, maybe if I use it you will realize that I exist. Maybe then my life will mean something to you.” The N word is not a term of endearment; it is a cry for help.