Certain things shouldn’t have to be explained. When our friends ask us to respect their boundaries, to avoid doing things that play with scars they’ve built over time, we tend to oblige them. But despite members of the Black community in America constantly expressing discomfort and disdain for non-Black people using the controversial word, non-Black people still seem to insist.
Maybe it’s because there are also members of the Black community who seem to take no issue with it. Maybe it’s because these non-Black people don’t seem to know any members of the Black community. Or maybe it’s because people haven’t read works like this Twitter thread:
Let's discuss the Linguistic & Pragmatic use of the word "nigga":
— same old synonym toast crunch (@Luckwman) May 10, 2017
The tweets above showcase a typified but unfortunate moment in which a Black person is made to explain why something is racist; in this case, why non-Black people using the n-word is racist. The writer, a user named @Luckwman, breaks down the linguistic context of the word and the many moments in language and socialization with which it is comparable. The tweets outline an important point: that, contrary to the beliefs of many, the acceptability of Black people using the word as opposed to other ethnic groups is understandable and manageable.
Over the years since the word has popularized, national cultural debates have raged on over what usage of the word is acceptable and what is not. For some reason, despite the existence of contextualized word selection even in our native Asian languages, and despite the constant unpleasantness and pain that non-Black usage of the word brings to many, there still are members of our community who insist that not being accepted for using the word is irrational. To some, it is even indicative of a fault in the Black community; which makes one wonder why usage of a Black word would be so appealing to those people.
NextShark published a piece on January 9 which covered a debate sparked by venerated Chinese-American rapper China Mac. Mac grew up in New York City and came up in impoverished neighborhoods; it’s common knowledge that impoverished New York City neighborhoods are home to many Black people (shout out to redlining). Through this experience, China Mac absorbed hip-hop and Black culture because it was his upbringing. And because of this, he had felt for many years he was entitled to say the n-word.
He recently had a public interview/argument with Black social media personality QueenzFlip wherein the two butted heads over who is or isn’t entitled to say the n-word.
“I’m saying it’s not fair because if it’s not a good word, it shouldn’t be a good word, period,” he said. “It shouldn’t be a word that should be used, period.”
Let’s put aside, for a moment, the strange attitude China Mac takes up in thinking he can prescribe meaning to a word that has no effect on him as a Chinese man. For the sake of debate with China Mac, as well as many commenters and viewers who may take up similar positions to his, let’s logically dissect the most common arguments using the information we know:
“If it’s a bad word, nobody should use it.”
Contrary to middle school teachings, there is no such thing as “bad words.” There are simply words and their usages, which fluctuate depending on context. A word I use that often has a good connotation can be taken with a bad connotation depending on who I say it to and who/what I say it about.
Let’s think about an Asian language such as Mandarin, and the differentiation between “ní” and “nín.” The word “ní” is not at all a “bad word;” it simply means “you.” But if I refer to the wrong person as “ní,” such as your grandmother who I am meeting for the first time, I might be sneered at or scolded.
In response, I might ask: “But why? I say “nǐ hǎo” to all of my friends, and it’s seen as a respectful thing that nobody thinks twice about.”
And as a response, I might receive: “She is not one of your little friends. Show some respect.”
If we as Asian people can understand these nuances in language and linguistics and respect them, even if they seem so minute on the surface, why should we plead ignorance to similar nuance regarding the n-word? Why are we suddenly baffled by the concept of a word’s context taking precedence over its intended meaning?
“You can’t expect me not to say the word when I have Black friends who say it to me.”
This is an argument China Mac made in his debate with Queenzflip. We can assess this in two important parts:
- Just because you can say it to your friends doesn’t mean you can say it to everyone or anyone else. You and your friends have different linguistic contexts that you keep amongst yourselves; there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. But once you are outside that context, amongst people who do not have that linguistic context or relationship with you, you can be expected not to use that language because many people will not be comfortable with it. To reiterate: not everyone is one of your little friends!
- Moreover, I absolutely can expect you not to say a word even if I’m the one saying it to you. Again, context is important: if your mother calls you “kid,” it’s expected and respected. If you call your mother “kid,” you will likely be reprimanded (for many, that’s worth a slap). We can refer to each other as different things and still understand that the words we use are for ourselves only.
“But I’m from the hood, and where I grew up…”
Don’t appeal to your local culture as the most legitimate. And don’t assume that you know how everyone in your hood feels about the word and your usage of it. Just because you’ve gone unchecked doesn’t mean everyone has had the opportunity to check you.
“You can’t tell people what they can or can’t do.”
Actually, you can (and you just did, theoretical arguer!). But this is not the point: nobody is truly asserting the idea that any person cannot use a word. It’s not against the law; you can do whatever you want. You’re just not free of the potential consequences attached.
“That’s just hip-hop now. Rappers use the word all the time.”
That’s hip-hop when performed by Black rappers. Listen to Jay Park, Dumbfoundead, Awkwafina or Keith Ape. Listen to K-Rap and J-Rap. These artists do not use the word. Listen to Eminem, Mac Miller or Macklemore: these artists do not use the word. They didn’t find it necessary to say it while performing within an art form that, according to you, uses the word with free reign. Why should you?
“I don’t mean it in that way.”
What you mean and what you do are two different things. See the “If it’s a bad word…” section above.
“Black people need to stop–“
Black people are not a monolith. As you navigate this debate, you will find Black people who don’t say it as well as Black people who do say it. You will also find a whole spectrum of unique perspectives within and in between these two poles.
“But I’m not White.”
The n-word was not created to target non-White people; we know very well that they’ve got other stuff for us. Being that we as Asian people are not affected by the word, we cannot dictate what it means or who should use it.
This transitions well into the final and likely the most important point, which can be sourced from Facebook comments like these:
“Everyone including Blacks should stop using it period.”
“I know there’s this whole thing of ‘only Blacks can say it.’ But maybe if EVERYONE stopped saying it and including it in pop culture, then there wouldn’t be this issue.”
“N-gga, we were not part of the slavery of your ancestors. Why blame everyone for someone else evil doing???”
I’m sure these commenters are well-intentioned, but the essence of their statements is misguided and racist, and here’s why: the n-word has nothing to do with us as a people. It affects Black people, and we have no leg to stand on trying to tell Black people what they should think about it or how they should use it.
Regardless of what your opinion may be — even if you feel you have the most compelling argument for why Black people are wrong about this — your opinion is unnecessary, uninformed and unwanted. It is not your job, not your people, not your decision. You’ll never know what life is like as a Black person, just as Black people will never know what it’s like as an Asian person. Even if you grew up around Black people and studied Black culture all your life, your theory has no proper foundation because this is not about debate, it is about respect.
Even China Mac himself has somewhat acknowledged this and spoken in interviews about no longer using the word. For him, it was a matter of respecting the people who didn’t feel comfortable with it. While this leads one to wonder why he’d then take up an argument about it, it’s still a respectful stance to take and we commend him for it.
Respect for other groups doesn’t cost us anything as Asians. Leaving the n-word alone doesn’t cost us anything as Asians. And frankly, we haven’t come close to solving the controversy surrounding the word anyway. It’s an issue nowhere near as simple as many would like to believe.
So, in 2019, I ask that we please leave this conversation behind us. Given the many real issues that each ethnic minority faces in the United States, as well as the many issues that intersect and affect us all, there’s simply no time or place for these arguments. You know how to respect context; you know how to respect boundaries. The question is one of whether you are willing to give that respect.