While perusing the reader comments attached to news articles about the Paula Deen controversy, I have noticed a common refrain that goes something like this: "But black people say the n-word all the time. So why can't white people say it without being publicly crucified? I can't say it, but you can? That's reverse racism." While I realize that whole books have been dedicated to this topic, I am going to attempt to address it in 850 words or less. So for a moment, let's set aside the fact that Paula Deen is accused of a lot more than saying the n-word. Never mind that she is alleged to have contributed to a hostile work place for black people. Let's put aside the fact that the n-word is not the only indicator of racism, any more than people who repurpose flame retardant white sheets at night are the only people participating in or benefiting from racism.
Dear White Folks who are freaking out over Black Folks' use of the N-word:
I realize that it is disturbing to think that there might be one privilege that black people have that white people do not. Therefore, I am going to set the record straight. I have compiled a list of things that black people cannot say. This list is by no means complete. I am hoping that readers will add more items in the comments section for your further edification.
1.) Black people actually cannot go around freely and randomly using the n-word. If you are relying on hip hop as your primary window into black life, I can imagine why it might appear that way. However, there are strict rules. I cannot roll into a laundromat in Trenton, NJ and say, "What's Up N___s?" -- not if I want to leave with all my hair in tact. Middle class black people under a certain age generally don't use this word. In my experience, I have yet to attend a dinner party where anyone said, "pass the asparagus, N___." If I were to call one of my black students the n-word, I would expect to be packing up my desk by the end of the day. The ability to use the n-word is complicated. There has to be community, affinity, equality, and history. If you want to use it freely you have become a rapper and say it along with any other cultural taboos you can come up with that will help you sell records to white kids who want to hear and sing a word that they are not supposed to say. But hip hop is a performance and the n-word is a part of that performance for some rappers. Real black life (the world where you can't get paid to say the n-word) on the other hand is all together something different.
2.) Black folks can't use other racial slurs at all. None of us gets a free racial slur card for being black. And when white people use racist/classist words like "redneck" or "white trash" to denigrate poor white people for daring to be white and poor, we can not use these word back, nor criticize your use of them. And let's be honest, slurs for white people are not all that powerful or satisfying. "White trash," is equally a slur to blacks because the moniker "white" implies that trash is ordinarily black. My grandmother used to use the word "peckerwood" like it was going out of style, and apparently it really was. She lived most of her life under legal racial segregation and in her largely monolithic community this word meant something. But now when a white person cuts me off in traffic, such words never even cross my mind. This is not because I am a good person. Living in an integrated world, in which white people are my colleagues, dear friends, and family members, I am not even sure to whom I would say such a word. And, I am pretty sure any white person I said it to, would be either confused, amused, or both because we both know intuitively that it and I have little power to change the racial power dynamics that shape our world.
3.) Though black folks have the power to call you on your use of the n-word, we rarely have the words or proof to meaningfully name the invisible forms of racism, which are equally damaging. You know that moment when we were politely chatting on the plane, and I told you I was a professor, and you looked at me wide eyed and said, "Good for you!" a little too loud? Or remember that time, when you complimented some black person's articulateness, cleanliness or general competence as if that person had somehow escaped the rest of the inarticulate, dirty, inept hoard of black folks. And maybe you remember the time that you interviewed that black man with the ivy league degree and in spite of yourself, you were fuming because you didn't get into that school and you were pretty sure that he should not have gotten in either. And, maybe you hired a white guy you are sure was equally qualified, but whom you just felt more comfortable with because he was a "better fit." Well, you don't need to worry because in all likelihood no black person is going to call you and talk to you about anything of these things because we are pretty sure you'll call us crazy, whiny, paranoid, touchy, and more white people than not will probably agree with you. Unless you slip up and say the n-word, nobody is going to accuse you of anything, because we just can't. And besides, if we pointed out every time this stuff happened, we wouldn't have time to do anything else.
So there you have it (844 words, not counting the salutation). So the next time you find yourself jealous of a rapper because he can say the n-word and you can not, you can rejoice in knowing that the rest of the black folks are gagged just like you.