This Is the Way the N-Word Dies
The last time somebody called me a n****r, I was on holiday.
I’d just arrived in Skopje, North Macedonia, innocently searching for something to get the taste of airline food out of my mouth, when I heard a shout from across the street:
“Hey! You! Uh… you are n****r.”
I looked over and saw a boy, no more than 18 years old, sitting on his bike. He waited for my reaction, his foot poised on the pedal in case I decided to chase him. I hadn’t provoked him. He was half my size, his English was barely up to the task of expressing his racism, yet he’d decided to do this with his time. It was so absurd that I started laughing.
It wasn’t the reaction he’d been hoping to get.
Something had obviously gone wrong. Why hadn’t I been crushed by the weight of 400 years of oppression? Where was the primitive rage he expected from someone he considered only three-fifths of a man? Why hadn’t I been overwhelmed by his “power plus privilege?”
He tried again.
“Uh, you… I don’t like you. I don’t like Black people.”
“Oh really?” I replied, still chuckling. “Why not?”
Poor kid. None of this was in the script. Who has time to think about why they’re racist? Isn’t the whole point of words like “n****r” that neither party needs to think at all? I’m supposed to get angry or preferably burst into tears, and he’s supposed to feel powerful and get to soothe his self-loathing temporarily. It’s simple. So why was I refusing to play along?
He spent a few moments trying to figure out why he should dislike somebody just because of the amount of melanin in their skin, but the strain eventually got the better of him. He let out a defeated little sigh, shot me a look of confusion and disappointment, and rode away. I almost felt sorry for him.
Are we supposed to believe that Black people are so powerless that a single word can bring us to our knees?
The N-word’s primary reason for existence is to attack, humiliate, and dehumanise Black people. This needs to change. I’m not interested in “reclaiming” it. Why lay claim to something so toxic? I’m not concerned with semantic distinctions between an “a” and an “er.” I’m talking about rendering it utterly and permanently obsolete.
Some think the best way to achieve this is to police who can say it. Black people, yes. White people, no. Others argue that nobody should be allowed to say it, that we should heighten its taboo until nobody dares to use it. If either of these approaches were likely to work, I’d be happy to support them. But sadly, language (and human nature) doesn’t work that way. Words don’t lose their impact as they become more taboo. In fact, the opposite happens. Our sensitivity to them increases.
Take, for example, Greg Patton, a professor at the University of Southern California, who was suspended following complaints about his use of a Chinese word that sounds like the N-word during a communications lecture.
Or Jason Kilborn, a professor at Chicago’s John Marshall Law School, who wrote an exam question about an employment discrimination case which included the following text:
I haven’t edited anything here; that’s how it appeared on the exam paper. Yet, a student claimed that she was so “incredibly upset” that she “experienced heart palpitations,” prompting the dean to place Kilborn on indefinite administrative leave.
More recently, ex-New York Times reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr. was forced out of his job one year after using the N-word during a private conversation in which a student specifically asked him to give his opinion about its use. The Times released a statement clarifying: “We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent.”
Or there’s Slate podcast host Mike Pesca, who was “indefinitely suspended” for his part in a discussion about whether a White person could ever use the N-word legitimately. He didn’t even use the N-word during the conversation, yet a Slate staffer said she felt outraged simply because he’d had the conversation.
I’m not highlighting these examples because I’m worried about the careers of academics or journalists. I’m highlighting them because this type of overreaction is precisely the reason why racists use the word. They hope to cause this level of discomfort (and more) every time they say it. If this hypersensitivity is genuine, these people are why the N-word continues to hold power. If they’re faking their outrage, they’re undermining the standing of Black people everywhere.
Normalising behaviour like this suggests that Black people are so emotionally immature that we can’t understand when we’re being attacked. Or that it’s reasonable for future Black lawyers to have heart palpitations at the sight of the first letter of a slur. It portrays us as fragile creatures who shouldn’t be expected to differentiate between English and Chinese when taking offence.
Is there any other group of people that we expect so little from? Are there any other adults whose right to claim offence is free from intent or context? Are we supposed to believe that Black people are so powerless that a single word can bring us to our knees?
In case there’s even the tiniest shred of doubt, this is not who we are. Black people have overcome centuries of cruelty, insult, and injustice with our dignity intact. We have fought our way from the bellies of slave ships to the presidency of the United States. We’ve become heroes and icons, legends, and trailblazers, and we did all of this despite the relentless efforts of racists to hold us back. No other group can more confidently reject the accusation of fragility.
Richard Pryor once described the N-word as “a word that’s used to describe our own wretchedness,” but I don’t think that’s right. It’s a word that tries desperately to convince us that we’re wretched. We are not. But as long as we treat the N-word as the Black person’s “Avada Kedavra,” we give power to that idea.
When I was a kid, I remember being mystified by the variety of terms for Black people: Negro, coloured, Black, Brown, the African diaspora, people of colour. I could never understand why nobody did the same for White people. Why did the colour of my skin need to be referred to so much more carefully than theirs?
White people are just “White.” Nobody worries about being insensitive or “causing harm” by using the wrong term. Words like “cracker” and “honky” are freely available for use as slurs. Yet virtually nobody does. Nobody makes the argument that only White people can say them. No asterisks or hyphens are required. The words are simply dead.
Yes, there are differences. White people weren’t stolen from their homeland and enslaved. They weren’t chained, beaten, whipped, and sold. Black people didn’t use words like “cracker” to dehumanise White people — we used them to condemn the inhumanity they showed us. All of this is true. But that isn’t why we no longer use those words. I’ll give one last example to illustrate my point.
In 2018, actor Viggo Mortensen used the N-word during a Q&A for his film, The Green Book. His predictably sycophantic apology read as follows:
In making the point that many people casually used the N-word at the time in which the movie’s story takes place, in 1962, I used the full word. Although my intention was to speak strongly against racism, I have no right to even imagine the hurt that is caused by hearing that word in any context, especially from a White man.
“Especially from a White man.”
Lurking behind the angst about the N-word is the belief that White people hold some immutable power over Black people. That a word from their lips harms us in a way that carries unique weight. These “apologies” aren’t apologies at all. They’re performance art that gently affirms their belief in that power by professing the desire to relinquish it.
My young Macedonian friend believed in that power, too. But when he tried to use it, he learned the truth: The N-word is only as powerful as we say it is. He learned that my feelings about it mattered far more than his. He learned that without it, he didn’t even know why he was supposed to hate me. The next time he thinks of using the N-word, he’ll remember what he learned. Meanwhile, I’ll mostly remember that defeated little sigh as he rode away.
This is the way the N-word dies — not with a bang, but with a whimper. It dies when those who want to use it as a weapon find themselves disarmed by our indifference. It dies when we no longer need to have debates about who’s “allowed” to say it because nobody wants to say it. It dies when Black people, and racists especially, see the N-word for what it is.
It was never a reflection of our wretchedness; it’s a reflection of theirs.