COLUMN: Who gets to use the N-word?

It’s 2020. Let’s leave racial slurs in the past.

Elizabeth Okosun is a sophomore journalism at MU. She is an opinion columnist who writes about social issues.

In recent years, pop culture has witnessed non-black celebrities saying the N-word. Although they claim they’re not being racist by saying it (it’s in the song!), the act of saying the word when you’re not black is still racist. The most recent incident was actress Gina Rodriguez, who is Latina, singing the word while listening to a “Ready or Not” by The Fugees. Rodriguez, who has made comments perceived as anti-black in the past, claimed she grew up listening to the song and meant no harm by it. She issued a non-apology, saying she was sorry “if” anyone was offended by her words.

However, people were offended by her words. Saying “if” singles out those offended by her racist remarks, basically saying that they are overreacting to what she considers to be harmless actions.

Unfortunately, Rodriguez is not the only non-black celebrity to use the slur with reckless abandon and not feel bad about it. Jennifer Lopez has used the word in a song. Although the lyrics were written by a black artist, it does not deflect from the fact that she is a nonblack person saying a word with such a loaded history. When asked about it, she pointed fingers to Ja Rule, the writer, rather than taking accountability.

In U.S. history, the N-word was used as a vulgar slur toward black people. From slavery to the Jim Crow era, and even today, the word is derogatory toward black people. Although the word is said to have originated as a term for black, it has been degraded into a harmful slur that should not be used by non-black individuals. By the 1800s, it was recognized as a vulgar term for black people.

During the slavery era, black people were not seen as human beings. They were captured and beaten, lynched and killed; their existence was not seen as human. Laws, such as the Three-Fifths Compromise, at the time stated that enslaved people were not people in the ways that white people were.

Part of this degradation of human life was calling black people slurs, such as the N-word. It was used as a way to mock black people, telling them that they do not deserve the decency of being called by their name.

For generations, the N-word has continued to be used derogatorily. Although there has been a reclamation of the word in black spaces, it is still a slur when uttered by nonblack people.

Just recently, a white woman in Los Angeles was caught on camera screaming obscenities and other things, including how she would kill all black people if the law permitted.

Another white woman at a Holiday Inn Express called an employee the N-word simply because he was not able to book her a hotel room on short notice.

This month, a group of white students decided to walk around their campus at the University of Connecticut and yell the racial epithet.

In these three cases, and the many others in which the slur is used, they are not using it as a term of endearment. It is meant to garner fear in the very people victimized by the slur. Their actions and word choice blatantly tell black people that white people think they are better than them.

Yet, for some reason, non-black people still seem to believe they have the right to say the word because it is used in the black community.

Black people have reclaimed the word in modern times, using it with a softer ending rather than the harder “er” that was, and is, used to denote racism. It is used as a term that bonds other black people together through a similar understanding of black oppression and the culture as a result of it. For years, it has been used in rap and R&B songs by black artists, two genres created by black people as a creative outlet for the pain faced by our community.

This brings up the issue of whether or not non-black people can sing it in a song. I, and other black people, have heard the age-old comment: “They wrote it in the song. So I can’t sing it?” No, you can’t. Whether it’s with an “a” or a hard “er,” the word becomes a slur when used by the very people who made it into something vulgar.

Others argue that there’s a difference between the slur and the shortened version of it, but the fact is that the modern usage of the word did not exist without the former. It is something that black people reclaimed. We as a community have reformed the word for our own usage and meanings — it is special to us. When used by people outside of the community, whether it is meant to be harmful or not, the pain of the past is dredged up. It is not something that can be left at the door when racist people are still using it with a negative connotation.

The N-word was meant for us; its usage and meaning will be determined by us.

Edited by Bryce Kolk |

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