I’ve had several casual conversations in previous months. Some of those conversations were with other white people, cuz, you know, they be around. And thricely, on three separate occasions, with three separate white people, a white person said, in full lettering, the racial slur n word, as “n-i-****”.
Don’t ask me if it was the version with the hard R. When it’s a white person saying it, it might as well always be the hard R. .
And these were all people who identified as liberal, educated, open-minded and progressive people.
So three times I hear it. And three times I ask, “just curious, what made you think I was going to be okay with you saying “n-i****” to me?
Because here’s the thing, I thought we were all, those of us in the liberal progressive anti-racist white people club, aware of two things:
- We’re all a little bit implicitly structurally racist, you know, because we were born and bred by hundreds of years of white supremacy and privilege.
- White people shouldn’t say the n-word, not neva.
APPARENTLY I WAS WRONG.
I have realized, in the wake of these conversations, that in the prohibitive statement, “white people shouldn’t say the n-i-** word” there is an escape clause. I didn’t notice this escape clause before. But I have now identified this little racist trap door and would like to present it to you.
First, though, let’s make sure you can even SEE the door. Let’s begin at the beginning.
The obvious question: why shouldn’t white people say n-i***? What is the reason for that prohibition? A prohibition, by the way, is an off-limits, a “thou shalt not…”
I think I know your answer, but let me see if I’m right. Is it the same answer that Ice Cube gave Bill Maher after Maher referred to himself in 2017 as a “house n-i-**” on his HBO Show?
If you are a subscriber to the prohibition against white people saying ni** then my assumption is that you agree with Ice Cube. White people shouldn’t say the word n-i*** because it is offensive to Black people. It hurts their feelings.
And that is a great reason not to use a certain word. It’s awesome and noble and very cool to not do shit that offends people.
But that’s also what gives people the escape clause. Because if there’s no Black person in the room to be offended or hurt–what then? What if a Black person says it’s okay to say the word, or it doesn’t bother them, or in fact uses it to refer to you, a white person. What then?
For example, what if you are a famous Black man comedian sitting in a room of famous white men comedians and suddenly that word just starts being thrown around like it’s the Constitutional Convention?
You don’t have to wonder. You can hear it now in a clip from 2011 featuring comedians Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Louis C.K., and Ricky Gervais.
I’m going to play the clip, uncensored. It’s pretty fucking gross. If you do not want to listen, please skip ahead 90 seconds. If you do want to listen, here ya go….
In that situation, Rock becomes the alibi for Gervais and Louis C.K. not to worry about offending anyone and therefore to be able to say the word because, after all, they’re not USING the word, they’re just referring to the word. Escape clause.
And what if another Black person, such as the famous linguist John McWhorter, says that’s it’s okay for white people to “mouth the word,” as he puts it, if they’re talking about the word and not, in fact, using the word as a racial slur? After all, that was the case for the three white people to whom I was speaking. They were mouthing the word, not using the word, as McWhorter would say.
McWhorter wrote in The Atlantic last year that it seem disingenuous and overly sensitive to make a big deal out of white people saying the full ni** when talking ABOUT the word. McWhorter was writing about a controversy when a white creative writing professor said the word n-i*** when asking her class whether the title of a 2016 documentary about James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, should have used the word n-i** as Baldwin originally did instead of changing it to Negro. (For the record I don’t like saying that word, either, but I feel like if I spell it right now I’m going to lose my ground.)
Thinking about this white creative writing professor that McWhorter defends, I admit to having done something similar, at least in my mind, but probably not in McWhorter’s.
I didn’t say the word but I did put that word, spelled out in its entirety, in front of my students with no warning. Specifically, I pasted a link to an article about Bob Dylan’s use of the word in his song “Hurricane” and, when the link appeared in the message thread, the title included the word spelled out in its entirety.
A student came to me later and explained to me that having that word suddenly appear, uncensored, in front of their face at 8am in the morning was inconsiderate and clearly out of touch with how that word affects people of color, even in print.
That experience taught me something very important–as much as I hate hearing that word from white people, as offended as I feel by it, I still don’t really get it, do I? Because if I did, I would have thought about that experience and thought about that word appearing in front of someone’s face, uninvited, in its entirety and found a different way to present the article.
And what if…and this is the big what if…you don’t give a shit about offending anyone? What if you think that offending people is an accomplishment? If you think provocation is some kind of holy grail of thought? Or you think people are too easily offended, too sensitive, and their whiny little snowflake feelings pale in comparison to your grandiose, earth-shattering provocations? If you are a Judy Gold or Howard Stern or Donald Trump–the shock jocks of the world?
There are, in the end, many escape clauses to the basic prohibition that white people should not say the n-word. There’s the “but no one was offended” escape clause. The “but I wasn’t using the word I was talking about the word” escape clause.” And finally there’s the “it gets us talking” escape clause. You may think that any one of these is more or less legitimate than the other. But in the end, they all get at the same point: they’re all entitlements. They are all different ways of being entitled to words.
The problem with any kind of “should” language, with prohibitions, is that human beings are largely two-years olds. And the one thing two year olds love more than anything else is to transgress–to see a boundary and step right over it. So if they can find an escape clause that lets them be entitled, they’re going to take it, even if they’re only escaping into a much shittier place–the place where white people go to say n-i-*** to one another with impunity.
This is what I find interesting about the interview with Maher and Ice Cube. Ice Cube gives Maher an out. He says “you toe the line man, that’s what you’re skilled at. And this time you crossed it and that’s the hazard of the job and just don’t do it again and apologize.”
It was a really generous out. Maher should have taken it. He should have said, “thank you, Ice Cube for explaining my job to me better than I apparently understand it. You’re right. As a comedian, my job is to walk the line between should and should not, to transgress that line, and this time I transgressed in a way that was shitty and felt gross and I’m sorry and you’re right.”
But he didn’t, he gave perhaps the most boring and irresponsible and uninteresting defense of racist language I’ve ever heard: “Comedians–they just react.”
For a moment, let’s suppose Maher’s right and comedians have lost, for some reason, the uniquely human skill of speech planning and foresight and can, in fact, only react automatically like animals. If that’s true, what does it say that Maher’s first reaction was to run TOWARD the word n-i-*** and not AWAY from it?
Comedians don’t just react. Comedians are trained to be the smartest two-year olds: to see a prohibition and then transgress it. But they can transgress with purpose or they can just transgress to be shitty.
In that sense, comedians are no different than intellectuals, who also push boundaries on what can and cannot be said. Whether you’re a white person who says ni*** because it is emotionally provocative or intellectually provocative, in the end, you’re in the same wheelhouse.
And when I say “you” here, I mean “I”–me. I am both of these things. I am a person who thrives on transgression, emotional, comedic, and intellectual.
Many-a-time have I had similar justifications for transgressions pop through my head. Like using with impunity the non-gay f-word, which I defend voraciously in episode 7 of the podcast and am not saying here in its full lettering for obvious effect.
When I want to transgress and someone tells me “you shouldn’t do it,” the more I want to do it, because if “you shouldn’t do it” were going to work then it would have already worked!
The problem with phrasing the rules or norms or whatever you want to call them around the word n-i** as a prohibition, as a thou shalt not, is that not only does it NOT address the more implicit racism of feeling entitled to say the word when there’s no one around “to be offended,” but it also begs the very people to transgress that you’re trying to get to stop transgressing because most people–especially people who fancy themselves edgy intellectuals or truth tellers or the last stalwarts of free speech against woke liberal scolds–when they hear a prohibition, their first instinct is to violate it.
That is why I try very hard not to use the word should. Whether you should or shouldn’t do something is between you, ya God, and ya Granny.
I’m not you, your God, or your Granny so I’m not going to tell you what you should or shouldn’t do. I also don’t have kids so….I don’t know why I’m telling you that I just feel like that matters as a caveat.
Instead of shoulding all over you, lemme just ask: Why do you want to say n-i***? Why, in each of those moments, did my white colleague, friend, neighbor, my fuggin MENTOR…why did they want to say that word? And, more importantly, why might you not want to say it whether or not there is anyone around to “be offended”?
I can’t make those decisions for you.
But I can tell you why I don’t say it.
The reason I don’t say ni** or use exclusionary language to the degree I’m aware that I’m doing it is that it is about the easiest way for each of us who are a member of a group historically privileged through language to enact linguistic reparations.
Linguistic reparations isn’t a widely used term. In fact, I thought it was just a random thing I thought of until I did a web search and found it in very miniscule use. Shocker alert: I’m not as original as I think.
If you think about economic reparations, it’s paying money, making investments, and returning land, among other things, to groups historically victimized by colonization and imperialism. Think Nas’s “40 acres and a mule.”
Similarly, linguistic reparations is about giving words back or giving them up. Not sharing them. Not redistributing them, but returning them to repair harm and injury. It’s a form of inverted privilege; to abstain from laying claim to a cultural or linguistic resource as a form of amends while that resource is used indiscriminately by another group.
Let me give you a more expansive statement from the Drammeh Institute, a New York based nonprofit that advocates for Black rights and advancement. I quote:
There are those who say that enslaving Africans was the law of the day. However, we say African people’s right to humanity was the law of the very same day. And so, during this Decade we seek linguistic Reparations. And that is to correct the language about the enslavement experience of African people as a “slave trade”, and call it a genocidal experience. In this vain, we rely on the Program of Action which has urged States to promote the full and accurate inclusion of the history and contribution of Africans and people of African descent in the education curriculum.the Drammeh Institute
The Drammeh Institute is asking for much more sweeping reparations: changing history books to say “genocide” rather than “slave trade” specifically.
Now obviously linguistic reparations are not enough. To really correct for white supremacist history we need economic, cultural, educational, and social reparations. Those require us working on broad, structural changes. Those are not changes we can flip on a dime.
What we can flip on a dime are the words we choose and why even when we are in private where supposedly our entitled language isn’t injuring or hurting anyone.
Paying, so to speak, your linguistic reparations–presuming that “you” belong to a majority group of some kind, which may not be true of all of you–is about denying yourself entitlements that you feel, well, entitled to. It means calling bullshit on your excuses about why certain words are not off limits to you.
Chris Rock actually explained this well in an old interview with Eric Bogosian in the New York Times. How and why by 2011 he would sit in a room and let Louis CK and Gervais throw around the n-word indiscriminately I can’t begin to know or speculate on. Maybe it’s peer pressure. Maybe it’s so normalized in his industry he gave up. Maybe it’s internalized anti-Black racism. Maybe he doesn’t care anymore. I don’t know. But at least in 1997, white people not saying the n-word was very much an issue of redistributing privilege and entitlement–what I call linguistic reparations.
Bogosian, who is Armenian American, tells Rock in the interview: I’m angry at everybody and I don’t even need a reason. If I were black. …
“You’re not” Rock replies.
Bogosian says: “No. But (“when a but comes after a no it’s a clear sign someone ain’t getting it). “No. But,” Bogosian says,” I get pulled over every time I get on an airplane. It’s the ethnic hair, I think. But you seem angry at blacks, like you’re resentful of your own kind. You pick on black behavior a lot.”
Rock responds: “I pick on ignorance. Anyone who thinks it’s cool to be stupid.”
(FYI when I read this interview I sort of got the vibe that Bogosian was in the “cool to be stupid” camp but who knows)
Bogosian responds: “There are blacks you are clearly angry at. You used the word ”ni****” in your HBO show.”
(For the record, it’s spelled on the page of the New York Times. Whether Bogosian mouthed the word, I do not know.)
Rock answers: “I guess I did.”
(I’ve always found this answer interesting. Like he obviously knows he did. He’s clearly guarding against where he knows Bogosian is about to go with this interview.)
Bogosian says: ”Ni***” is a heavy-duty word. You better have a good reason for using it.”
Rock responds (this is the reparations bit):
It’s not that heavy-duty. The thing with ”ni***” is just that white people are ticked-off because there’s something they can’t do. That’s all it is. ”I’m white, I can do anything in the world. But I can’t say that word.” It’s the only thing in the whole world that the average white man cannot use at his discretion.the New York Times
Whatever we want to do with 2011 Chris Rock, 1997 Chris Rock nails it. The n-word is the only thing, the only wor d, the only resource, that the average white person cannot use at their discretion. And that’s why I don’t say it. Because not saying it is literally the bare minimum way to do the bare minimum amount of work of advocating for pro-Black advancement.
So, as I close the episode, let me put white people on notice. If you come across me and think I’m gonna give you the white nod for an “intellectual” (air quotes) discussion in which you mouth out the full-on n-word as if it ain’t no thang, well…in the words of a much older Ice cube…