Can a White Person Ever Legitimately Use the N-Word?


Looks like Dr. Laura Schlessinger brought us a new N-Word controversy less than a year after John Mayer's N-word controversy. I know it's a sensitive topic, and I will state up front that I am white (or of European Protestant descent if you prefer). Both Mayer and Schlessinger had to apologize as they both realized that a white person using this word is very dangerous territory

I realize I am about to wade into the same dangerous waters, but the latest case made me realize that although it's advisable for a white person to avoid this word, there may be times when it's legitimate. I'll tackle these cases one by one.

What I Do

I personally avoid the full mention of the N-word in reference to African Americans at almost all situations - even most of this blog entry, and it's because I have personally seen other whites using N-word for it's full negative meaning. I even saw someone praising their terrier for biting the leg of a "N____" (white person's word). It was truly a repulsive experience to me, and I was just a bystander. I can't imagine what it would be the subject of such an attack.

Because of this, I really cannot regard that word with any neutrality - not even the quasi affectionate -gga form used in the African American community. The good news is that I rarely hear adults using the N-word with that connotation, and most regard it as wrong. But that doesn't mean the African-American community has forgotten it's original use. It was just within my lifetime, and I am not exactly close to retirement.

It's a raw wound, and it is still used by whites in the original context including a very enraged Mel Gibson. N-word for me except very carefully later in this blog.

Use Among African-Community

We all know from hip-hop culture that the N-word can be used by African-Americans among themselves. In fact, it is fairly common for a culture to adopt an outside derogatory term within the group partly in defiance, partly in humor. For instance, an English major with spina bifida commented that wheelchair bound friends would call themselves "gimps." And, I have literally heard Hispanic people call themselves "Spic", Italian-Americans call themselves "Wop" and Polish-Americans call themselves "Pollock". In fact, one Polish-American grandfather apparently explained to his shocked granddaughter - "Well I am one."

Do I plan to use these terms in casual conversation? Absolutely not. I do however sometimes use the term "chick" and even "bitch"...because I am a woman. Do I appreciate it when men use those terms? No I do not. They are still somewhat outside.

The principle is fairly simple - a community is free to appropriate a derogatory term and use it among themselves, but it's not OK for the original perpetrators to use. It's actually fairly simple, and I believe most whites understand this rule (except for the ridiculously obtuse), but the John Mayer and Dr Laura cases show where there are interesting fails.

And for the record, many African-Americans object to this use of the N-word...because the original use was so offensive and degrading.

John Mayer Fail

I actually think John Mayer knows this rule, but for some reason thought he was exempt. His context was that he thought he had a "hood pass", presumably higher than average acceptance within the African-American community, but then he decided to elaborate as follows:

"[Hood pass] is sort of a contradiction in terms, because if you really had a hood pass, you could call it a n*gger pass."

To his chagrin, Mayer discovered that his hood pass was not an all-access pass, and most of us - African American and non-African American could have told him that.

Actually, I will now divulge that I went to a high school with a higher than average proportion of African American students (about 50%). I loved my high school and got along well with different communities, but I would still NEVER use the N-word, and neither would any of my white classmates. We all knew that no white person in our high school can ever get THAT much of a "hood pass" (LOL in fact). (Postscript: I don't ever recall any of my African-American classmates using the N-word in my hearing either. A less than respectable African-American was actually a "Yo!").

And even if I had a "hood pass" back in suburban Baltimore (continuing to LOL), it's not really transferable. I suspect few if any of my Penn State colleagues would know that I was a high school with that demographic. Tragically, my teenage exposure to the hip-hip classic Roxanne, Roxanne and 80's bamboo/doorknocker earrings (as seen on Hip Hop is not written on my forehead. (And yes I had more meaningful interaction with the African American community than that).

As far as anyone in central PA is concerned, I am what my initial appearance says I am - a WASPy white chick with a Ph.D. I do miss the days of my high school when we were brave enough to impolitely challenge some stereotypes - we just knew that there were certain nuclear terms/topics to avoid.

Dr. Laura Fail

The Dr. Laura situation is a more interesting one. Like John Mayer, she quasi-realizes that there a "Whites don't use the N-word" rule, and she sort of follows it, but she doesn't understand it. Her use came up when she was discussing the situation of an African-American woman in a mixed race marriage. The lady's problem was that her husband's WHITE friends kept using the N-word in her presence (so not cool).

Dr. Laura then asks how offensive this is, commenting "Turn on HBO, listen to a black comic, and all you hear is nigger, nigger, nigger." At this point, I will defend (somewhat) Dr Laura and point out that she is quoting what probably happens on some HBO shows. She was not herself using that term to insult anyone. It's also not really a "rant" as news outlets insist on calling it. She was trying to state a point of view which you can agree or disagree with. She even thanks the caller when she hangs up.

Dr. Laura's mistake was that she underestimates the negative impact of a white person using the N-word in any context. In fact she asks "I don't get it. If anybody without enough melanin says it, it's a horrible thing. But when black people say it, it's affectionate. It's very confusing." (Dear Dr. Laura - It's not that confusing. Imagine your husband's friends using the term "broad" or "chick" all the time and the distinction should be clear).

It's not surprising that her caller took offense to Dr. Laura's somewhat flip attitude towards the use of that word and reacted negatively. The truth that Dr. Laura DOESN'T get it and went on to what I consider a far more offensive statement - "Don't take things out of context. Don't double N -- NAACP me."

Just because a person is reacting to the N-word doesn't mean you have to drag the NAACP into it.

A Legitimate White Use?

Well I did do something dangerous and used the full form of the N-word in a quote, even though I am not African American.

That is, I don't entirely agree with the African-American caller's premise that "I know what the N-word means and I know it came from a white person. And I know the white person made it bad."

It's true that whites should use the term with most extreme caution (which neither Dr Laura or John Mayer did). But the Dr. Laura quote of a quote raises the question where the line between etiquette and censorship is drawn. Is it OK for a white linguist to make commentaries on taboo terms? As a linguist I would hope so, because the alternative is that the usage of taboo terms is never examined. As ugly as they are, we may need to understand WHY they get used so that we can solve the problem.

If I am offending anyone because I am a white using this word just for once in an academic setting, I apologize for offense. But sometimes a bridge between communities has to be built and sometimes it's not a pretty bridge, just a rickety rope across a chasm.

And as for John Mayer and Dr. Laura, I believe they now know how volatile the use of that term is. Future generations may be able to view the N-word more calmly, but we are definitely not there yet.