The n-word is probably the most emotionally and historically charged word there is in English, at least in the United States. The rules of its use are clear: black people can use it, having reclaimed it and given it new meaning. White people cannot. It’s simply impossible to separate from its history as a disgusting racial slur and a vestige of centuries of enslavement and mistreatment.
But for white hip-hop fans—and they are plentiful, hip-hop now being bigger than rock music—the situation doesn’t always seem so straightforward. A lot of white kids have grown up listening to hip-hop. It’s part of their culture. Hip-hop artists tend to use the n-word liberally in their songs. White kids often want to sing along, and may feel entitled to when they believe could never harbor the same repugnant views as the bigots who made the word a weapon. So can they?
No, they can’t.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, the acclaimed author and writer for The Atlantic, offered a clear explanation why during a tour stop at an Illinois high school for his latest book, We Were Eight Years in Power. A student asked him the question outright, saying that her friends constantly use the word when singing along.
“Words don’t have meaning without context, OK?” Coates, who has defended the use of the n-word by black Americans, began in response. He offered different examples of how this dynamic plays out. His wife, for instance, refers to him as “honey” because that’s an accepted term between them, but if a stranger did, that wouldn’t be acceptable.
It’s a normal and widespread behavior. Similarly, different groups, such as the LGBT community, have their own ways of referring to each other that are off limits to those outside the group, such as derogatory words used ironically. People generally understand this, Coates noted. So why, he asked, do white people still get hung up on not being allowed to use the n-word?
“When you’re white in this country, you’re taught that everything belongs to you,” he said. “You’re conditioned this way. It’s not because your hair is a texture or your skin is light. It’s the fact that the laws and the culture tell you this.”
Because of this culture, white Americans often feel they have a right to use the n-word when they hear black Americans using it. “I have to inconvenience myself and hear this song, and I can’t sing along?” Coates mock-asked. “How come I can’t sing along?” That’s where the lesson lies. He explained:
For white people, I think the experience of being a hip-hop fan and not being able to use the word “nigger” is actually very, very insightful. It will give you just a little peak into the world of what it means to be black. Because to be black is to walk through the world, and watch people doing things that you cannot do, that you can’t join in and do. So, I think there’s actually a lot to be learned from refraining.
Coates’s explanation, beyond making a good point, was also funny. The video, posted to YouTube by his book’s publisher, Random House, is worth watching in full.
Quartz is owned by Atlantic Media, which also owns The Atlantic magazine.