The independent student newspaper of Western Illinois University. Serving Macomb since 1905.

Western Courier

It’s racist no matter the context

Shavez Rosenthal

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“Why can black people say the n-word and I can’t?” As a senior at Western Illinois University, primarily white folks who find themselves eager to use the word present me with this question at least once a semester. Having to hear the word uttered by my white counterparts at least once a week, I recognize that some white folks either fail to see the immorality of their actions or know very well what they are doing and just don’t care. Some black folks have differing perspectives on this issue. This is my take:

My father was born about a month before the Brown v. Board of Education decision came down, ruling racially segregated schools as unconstitutional. A decade later, my mother was born seven months subsequent to the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965. I do not know much about where they were born and how they were raised. What I do know is that they were subjected to various forms of de facto racist practices. My dad talks all of the time about how his movement, in his youth, was limited at a certain railroad crossing. From where he was from, everyone knew that crossing those tracks could certainly mean the very end of their life. My mother’s upbringing was not that much different. She easily recalls conversations of her grandmother working as a domestic servant and remembering not to make eye contact with her white counterparts while walking down the street.

Many people within black communities have their own particular histories about what their ancestors endured inside of a system based on the idea that whiteness was the threshold to be treated with dignity. In addition, we all have a collective history that we also recognize was troubling to say the least. In particular, the n-word comes from this same history. The n-word predates my mom, dad and great-grandparents. According to Lorena Alves, an author and scholar on racism and language, the word ending in -er comes from a mispronunciation of the word “Negro” by African slaves. The word itself was used as a means to describe enslaved Africans as commercial property. The Spanish word “negro,” meaning black, comes from the Latin adjective “Niger.” Southern whites would eventually develop the word, ending in -er, as a slur used against enslaved Africans. African-American communities would appropriate the racial slur later in the form of a term of endearment.

When I hear the n-word, in all its various forms, come out of the mouth from someone who is not from an African-American community, it reminds me of the similar context used against my family and community. It is a context that suggested an inherent superiority based on the color of my skin and a history based off of segregation, terrorism and the separation of families. Maybe there is a plausible argument that suggests that the problem exists within my own perception of the word and not in its usage by white individuals today. Maybe white folks use it as a term of endearment towards black folks in the pursuit of showing genuine solidarity with our cause. I just find that position hard to believe when the same white folks who are eager to have the chance to use that word in a conversation with me struggle to say that my life matters.

I have heard the argument that it presents an inequality when one group can use the n-word and another group cannot. I agree with this assertion. But it is important to keep in mind that there is data — reported by The Guardian — that shows black teenagers are much more likely to be viewed as older and more guilty than their white counterparts, that black college students are less likely to be hired than white high school dropouts, that black students are four times as likely to be suspended as their counterparts and other overwhelming data showing that black communities are not treated equally. Michelle Alexander, writing in “The New Jim Crow,” explained clearly that black folks do not have same access to justice, economic opportunities or even academic opportunities that white folks have. It is nothing but disingenuous to argue over equal access to the one thing that black folks can do and white people cannot.

I fundamentally disagree with people outside of black communities using the n-word. It does not matter if it is in our music. It does not matter if we use it amongst ourselves. It does not matter if you wrote a paper for English extensively articulating why slavery was wrong. It is offensive, it is wrong and it is racist. And sadly enough, I do not expect people outside of our communities to stop using it.

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The independent student newspaper of Western Illinois University. Serving Macomb since 1905.
It’s racist no matter the context