Can Whites Say the N-Word?

Short answer: no. Unless it's in a movie or a play or stand-up comedy or music.

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Illustration by Alexander Ho for TIME

We are stepping into deeply emotional territory here. No word in the American lexicon has the emotional force of nigger and yet its colloquial use grows as some young whites (and some Latinos and some Asians) believe it’s as innocuous as they decide it is. Words evolve but there is no new consensus on what nigga and nigger mean in the way the word gay turned in the 20th century from meaning happy to homosexual. Are young non-Blacks saying nigga as a way of expressing an allegiance with black people, or are they co-opting a signifier of edgy black cool, or are they attacking racism by defanging nigga or are they asserting that words mean whatever they want them to mean, history be damned? Whatever the ostensible motivation, non-blacks should not use nigga or nigger in most situations. But there are a few places where they are acceptable. We’ll get to that.

The flimsy, on-the-street colloquial usage of nigga by non-blacks is offensive and disrespectful to black history. It’s bizarre that anyone has to be told this. The idea that this generation of kids has recontextualized or defanged nigga is silly. Nigga is a Siamese twin of nigger. The two words are interdependent. Nigga would have none of its edginess or power or cultural sexiness without its close relationship with the Darth Vader of American English. Nigga is nigger with an ironic twist, but the venom is still in its fangs. Inside both words, I hear the echoes of slavery and lynchings and the Klan. It’s a word that locates blacks as monsters. Blacks who use it are laughing at that idea and perhaps thinking they’re defusing it or reclaiming it. Maybe we are. We have argued about whether or not we are for years with no resolution in sight. But still, blacks playing ironic games with the tools of our oppression does not give outsiders the right to play along. Whites who use it colloquially may think they’re using it in a non-racist way but the thoughtless, wanton usage does not come overstanding the history behind it, but from willfully ignoring it as if the past is done with us. We know it’s not even past.

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That said, I do see two instances where I would argue that it is acceptable and potentially useful for whites to say nigger. This is a personal argument I am positing that is not necessarily shared by other blacks.  My perspective will not save you if you run into trouble. You can say, “Hey Touré located this as a space where it’s ok! See, I have his article right here in my pocket!” And the angered party may say, “I don’t care what Touré thinks.” That happens plenty.

An example of how emotional people can get about nigger came when Sherri Sheppard heard her boss and friend Barbara Walters telling the audience about Rick Perry’s property displaying the word “niggerhead” on The View. Sherri had a kneejerk reaction to the word coming out of a white mouth even in the context of reporting. Barbara Walters is not Dr. Laura Schlessinger, who used nigger on her radio show in a racist context wrapped up in hoary stereotyping. I sympathize with Sherri while I find her position laughable. In reporting news that involves the word nigger, how can Barbara not say it while Whoopi and Sherri can? That, to me, is a comical standard. There’s a vast difference between using a word and talking about a word. Maintaining usage boundaries into a discussion about a word seems anti-intelligent. We should not attack or stigmatize those who would report it being said and thus lead to shaming those who wantonly use it which is useful to damaging those who would dare use it. But I understand that nigger elicits deep, painful emotions, making these distinctions hard to make.

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But those deep emotions that nigger taps into are precisely why I defend the right for artists onstage to use nigger. (By stage I mean movies, TV, theater, stand-up comedy, visual art, and music.) The stage is a special space where normal human laws and customs apply differently. An actor hitting an actress in a film will not be arrested or denounced though the character he plays may be arrested or rightly hated by the audience. Indeed that actor helps remind us how deplorable that action is by playing it out. Many whites have used nigger onstage to this end: to put nigger in the mouth of racists and losers and thus remind the audience that racism is dumb and deplorable.

Quentin Tarantino had lowlife criminals in Reservoir Dogs say nigger. Martin Scorsese says it in a cameo in Taxi Driver as a crazy, jealous, hatred-spewing taxi driver. Louis CK’s brilliant FX show Louie has used nigger a few times, perhaps most notably by his demented, anachronistic 90-something great aunt. Louis is horrified by her racist usage and has already taught his young daughters that using the word is wrong, so it’s clear the show is taking an anti-racist position.

A bit more complex is Sarah Silverman’s usage in her comedy but she is, like Stephen Colbert, inhabiting an unctuous character in order to mock that character and people who are like that character, so like the other examples she’s forwarding the message that racists are dumb and racism is idiotic. This is helpful to the cause. These uses also tell me that these artists understand race as part of their legacy as Americans and racism as their issue, something they can and should confront, which is more valuable than the ostrich-head-in-the-sand-like posture many whites bring to race. I also admire these artists’ insistence on their right to play all the keys on the piano called the American lexicon. When John Lennon wrote “Woman Is the Nigger of the World,” that word choice is artistically essential: no other word would’ve made the point as powerfully. He uses that word hoping to challenge the world.

Of course, a position this nuanced will lead to situations where artists push boundaries just to push them and offend in the process. For example the character Tarantino plays in Pulp Fiction, Jimmie Dimmick, repeatedly refers to a recently murdered black man as a “dead nigger.” Tarantino’s Jimmie is not an idiot or a lowlife. He has a nice house, a black wife he loves (he desperately doesn’t want to get divorced) and black friends he values like Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules, so we can assume this character is not supposed to be racist. So why is he repeatedly saying “dead nigger”? It’s an egregiously disrespectful usage that takes full advantage of Jules being in massive trouble. Once you’ve barged into a friend’s house in the midst of trying to get rid of a dead body, you’re in no position to check him about flinging around the word nigger. But I’m not sure what it profits the film beside pushing buttons and flouting taboos and attempting an edgy joke just to do it. I can’t quite figure out why Jimmy thinks the word’s available to him and what it says about his character that he does.

This highlights the risk inherent in exercising the artistic right to use nigger. I will defend your right as an artist to attempt a quadruple backflip 360 but whether or not you land on your feet is up to you. If you use nigger in a piece of art and do it wantonly and without care then you will offend and lose the audience. I support an artist’s right to attempt to work with the benzene of the language but beware: it’s a toxic chemical that could kill you.