The recent uproar over popular southern food queen Paula Deen’s admitted use of the word “nigger” (yes, let’s trying saying it out loud — calling it “the N-word” doesn’t necessarily make it less painful or less powerful) has revived a common point of contention or confusion among White people:

How come Paula Deen or I can’t say the N-word, even when we don’t mean anything bad, but Black people can say it all day long in hip hop music or on the basketball courts!? That’s not fair! Double standard!

This is a fair question, since on its face it looks like a comparison of apples and apples. The “apple” is the saying of the word “nigger.” However, where this logic goes wrong is in the assumption that people are like machines and words are like numbers. But this is not how humanity, nor language work. 2 = 2 all the time, but I ≠ you, and therefore N-word uttered by me ≠ N-word uttered by you.

The reason is context. Human relationships and human communication are complex. They have evolved over time within historical, social, and political contexts in which power was rarely equal or shared. They are made of stories that have been told and retold thousands of times, and dramas that have been acted and re-enacted thousands of times on the human stage. These stories and dramas live on in our individual and collective memories.

So let’s look at the word “nigger” and the history behind it to get some context. From what I gather, it seems to have started out as a mere descriptive word that White folks in Europe and the United States used to refer to Black Africans or dark-skinned people in general. (However, this occurred during centuries of the slave trade, so “mere descriptive” words aren’t necessarily neutral or benign in the context.) Around the early 1900s White people in the U.S. began to use the N-word more deliberately as a hostile pejorative meant to dehumanize Black people. It dehumanized them because not only was it a negative, insulting, condescending put-down, it lumped all people of diverse African descent and skin colors into one category.

The story of the N-word has been acted out on the human stage over and over across many decades (or centuries) in scenes where White people have used it to hurt, terrorize, minimize, and subjugate Black people. It has been used — and still is — by White people during beatings, rapes, and murders of people of African descent or dark skin tones, adding more violence to these already profound violations of their humanity. It has been used for many years — and still is — by White people to make Black people feel and act “less than.”

Regardless of your good or neutral intentions, this is the story that is triggered when a White person uses the N-word. African Americans’ use of the term is a response to its violent, abusive and demeaning history. This is called co-opting. Co-opting is an adaptive response to abuse of power. It takes power away from an oppressive, hurtful word by taking ownership of it, and using it in new contexts so its ability to injure is diluted. For African Americans, particularly younger males, those new contexts include camaraderie, affection, and group bonding — especially through the use of the slightly different version: “nigga”.

The issue of power is a critical element of co-opting. For hundreds of years, and still today, White people have had a disproportionate degree of political, economic, social, and physical power over African Americans. As a group and as individuals, our ability to harm and dictate the life circumstances of Black people has always been far greater than the reverse. Co-opting is a way the “less powerful” reframe and reclaim language, for language is a powerful tool of oppression in itself. It’s a way of starting to rewrite the story and enact new scenes in the human drama.

There are similar (but not identical) examples in other contexts. One is the way younger generations of LGBTQ people have co-opted the word “queer” as a term of power, solidarity and identity, when it was once only a derogatory, violent, insulting word heterosexual society used to terrorize LGBT people. (This is why many older LGBTs can’t bring themselves to use the word “queer”, even today.) Another example might be younger women’s use of the word “bitch” or “bitches” to refer to each other, their friends, or even themselves. In both cases, the violent, nasty word is assimilated by the “less-powerful” (LGBT people and women) to reduce its power to hurt them when wielded by the powerful.

Co-opting isn’t a response that’s always approved of or appreciated by all members of a historically marginalized and oppressed group. Many African Americans, including prominent ones like Bill Cosby, have come out clearly and vehemently against African Americans’ use of the words “nigger” or “nigga” in any context. This can seem confusing, but like most matters of race, racism, and diversity, this topic is complex, personal, and constantly evolving.

The most important thing to remember is that even though the N-word might look and sound the same to you no matter who says it, it does not look or sound the same to everyone else. For many other people, especially those historically damaged by the word, its feeling and meaning depend entirely on context — who is saying it, where, when, and how. Collective memory and the historical drama and its players matter more than your intention. While the word “nigger” may arguably be ugly no matter who says it, its not apples and apples, it’s apples and oranges.

Do you think this applies to other situations? How about violence between men and women? Is a woman hitting a man the same as a man hitting a woman? Why or why not?

[Read more about where Paula Deen went wrong, how dealing with incidents like these by firing people with no dialogue or learning is like playing whack-a-mole, and how this incident has deflected attention from larger topics that hurt people of color even more.]

<span”>** These tips are serious with a touch of sassy! They are not meant to imply that there are only two kinds of White people (“good” and “bad”), nor that all Good White People will agree with these tips (but they should! 🙂 ) nor that all White People who disagree with these tips are bad (well, maybe a little! 🙂 ). These tips are intended to help any and all Recovering Racists like me who (a) have good intentions (hence the “good”), (b) didn’t ask for the privilege that comes with white skin and European DNA and think that privilege is unfair, (b) recognize they have tremendous blindspots and ignorance due to that privilege and the power that comes with it, and (d) own their responsibility to end racism (that still exists today) regardless of what their European ancestors did or did not do during the previous history of the United States. These tips are also not just for Good White People, but also for People of Color Suffering from Internalized Oppression. All tips are based on actual scenarios I have experienced myself, been asked about by curious White people, or been told about by others who experienced them directly.

9 Comments

  • Avatar Eric Brewton says:

    Great Piece! It’s what I’ve been saying all along, The analogy is wrong. People from different groups refer to each differently than people from outside of the group. I can’t nor shouldn’t be able to come up to you and call you a racially derogatory name that refers to or implies your heritage.

  • This is beautifully explained and an excellent example of how a White person can become an ally to people of color. It was done respectfully, with raised awareness through a historical perspective and without minimizing those you intended to support.

    Where I believe the challenge is for White people is skipping the step of understanding White privilege. Once you understand the unwritten rules that have benefited you then you can understand that it is not apples to apples.

    This same concept applies to all of us because almost everyone has often unacknowledged privilege. Heterosexuals have privilege around their sexual orientation that they are often oblivious too. People without a disability can be unconscious of the privilege of walking, being able to focus, not having to interrupt their day for an insulin injection.

    Walk a year in the shoes of a Black teenage boy (my son has shared with me what it feels like to have people be afraid of you when you see yourself as just like them) and then maybe you too can say “What’s up my nigga.”

    • Susana Rinderle Susana Rinderle says:

      Robin I really appreciate the feedback, and hearing that the piece came across the way I intended. Poignant closing line. I agree with you about privilege — one of my favorite exercises to walk folks through is an exercise that opens their eyes to the fact that everyone carries membership in both privileged and oppressed groups. This is usually a surprise for both Whites and People of Color alike (although many folks have more checks in one column than another!), and each has their respective issues to work through as a result, but building awareness of how different aspects of our group-based identities and their histories show up in different contexts is, I think, a step in a more useful, humanizing direction for all.

  • Avatar Tim says:

    I understand the principle of co-opting, Susana. I hate the word none the less, and my taking offense at it in every setting is as valid a position as someone saying they don’t like it only when it’s used cross-racially.

    I feel the same about “bitches”. It’s a demeaning word whether used by a man against a woman or among women. Co-opting may be an attempt to neutralize, but usually the attempt is unsuccessful in the long run; the words still carry pejorative meanings regardless.

    Cheers,
    Tim

    • Susana Rinderle Susana Rinderle says:

      Hi Tim, I understand what you’re saying and why that’s important to you. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  • Love the care and reason in your writing Susana…

    Have you seen Jamie Utt’s article on 4 Reasons White People Can’t Us the N-Word (not matter what black folks are doing)?

    http://changefromwithin.org/2012/06/19/4-reasons-white-people-cant-use-the-n-word/

  • Susana Rinderle Susana Rinderle says:

    Here’s yet another thought-provoking take on the power of language and history, and a convincing argument that no one should ever use “the n-word.: http://www.tolerance.org/blog/n-word-connected-through-historical-disconnect

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