I don’t think any white rapper should be using [the N-word]. Whether you’re a rapper or a cashier [that rule applies]. I find it ridiculous that it’s even up for debate. I wasn’t raised to ever use that word, so I don’t see any circumstance where that would be appropriate. -Mac Miller
I love rap , and n***a (aka the n-word) is a frequent part of the music I listen to. I love rapping along as much as the next fan, but as a white person, I make sure that word never escapes my lips. I consider hip hop a very special gift, one that enriches my life in many ways. It adds rhythm to my world, shares narratives I wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to, and carries on the tradition of black art that is responsible for nearly every exciting thing about American entertainment over the last century. To me, part of showing appreciation for that gift is doing my best to show respect to the people who originated it.
But when Kendrick Lamar stopped his white fan from rapping the n-word during a concert earlier this year, the internet had mixed feelings on whether it was the right thing to do. Some gave Kendrick props for setting a boundary. Others claimed he was in the wrong for shutting the fan down since Kendrick himself uses the word and she was “just singing along.” But I think anyone defending a white person’s right to use the n-word really needs to think twice.
FOUR EXCUSES WHITE RAP FANS MAKE FOR USING THE N-WORD (and why they are bullshit)
1. “I’m just rapping/singing along!”
First of all, what white people really need to do is stop rapping or singing and get better at dancing! We know white people know how to say the n-word. Ugh. But something white people often don’t know how to do is dance. So if you really love hip hop culture, take a class. Or practice everyday at home. It will help get some of the circulation going back to your soul again. (This might sounds like a joke, but to body-centered therapist and author Tada Hozumi, it’s very very real. “White people ‘can’t dance’ because white-ness is a traumatized state that is disconnected from the body,” writes Hozumi in her fascinating article that you should definitely read here.)
2. “If black people say it, I should be able to say it too.”
That statement is basically equal to “there is nothing black people are allowed to have just for themselves.”
Hard stop. It’s normal for some words to have a certain meaning in one culture and a different one in another. You don’t use the same language around your friends as you do with your grandma or your boss. Language can encompass different meanings depending on context, so it’s not ‘wrong’ for there to be words that some people don’t say. Skipping that word as a white person is just culturally respectful.
3. “My black friend lets me say it, so it’s cool.”
There are many reasons why a black person might “give you a pass” to say the n-word but that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t be offending other black people by saying it. And it’s also possible your friend allowed it without really wanting to, since black people are frequently forced to acquiesce for the comfort of white people around them. If you observe how black folks as a group feel about that word, you will QUICKLY find that many black people are deeply disturbed even hearing the word from other black folks. Getting a pass from one or two black friends doesn’t mean you should discard any empathy for all the other black people you can’t get permission from.
4. “I’m saying it with an ‘a’ not an ‘er’ so it’s ok.”
The fact that you acknowledge the -er form of the word means you know at least SOME of the very violent history of what white people have done to black people while using that word.
Here’s what I’m not gonna do: form my mouth into any part of a word that my great grandparents could have muttered at a fucking lynching. The reality is that our white ancestors really ain’t shit for what they did (or at least what they didn’t stop from happening around them). You can love your family and still face that terrible history. And as a hip hop fan, you can face it by refusing that word from your mouth always, refusing to be anything (even a little bit) like that history.
I get that there may be some super-down white people who use that word in a way that feels like part of an authentic cultural identity. I get that it’s an important word in hip hop and white people are a part of that community. But as author Stereo Williams pointed out in Billboard magazine, making the n-word fair game to all (or off-limits to all) is really
…an attempt to duck the nuances of what that word means in Black art, and falsely assumes that there is no power in the way that Black people have used it to undercut its intent to dehumanize. Kendrick Lamar doesn’t allow his fans to pretend to be colorblind just because they’re his fans. If you are going to claim to understand this music, this voice, then you will have to understand that there are lines which aren’t yours to cross.