For any white person who still doesn’t get why they shouldn’t ever say the N-word, even if it’s just rapping along to a hip-hop song, Ta-Nehisi Coates has a straight-forward explanation.
At an event last month at Evanston Township High School in Illinois ― a clip of which was posted to YouTube last week by Coates’ book publisher Random House ― the journalist and author of We Were Eight Years in Power was asked the seemingly perennial question of why white people can’t use the word “nigga” when singing along to a rap song.
“Words don’t have a meaning without context,” Coates responded in the video, which has since gone viral on social media, garnering more than 4.5 million views on Facebook.
Coates listed a few examples of words that are acceptable to use in some situations, and not in others. For instance, while it is OK for his wife to refer to him as “honey,” he noted, it is probably not cool for a strange woman walking down the street to do so.
“My wife with her girlfriends will use the word ‘bitch,’” Coates continued. “I do not join in. I don’t do that ― and perhaps more importantly, I don’t have a desire to do it.”
The author explained that just because certain communities may choose to use a derogatory word ironically among themselves, that doesn’t give other people outside that community license to do so.
Coates noted that LGBTQ activist Dan Savage was considering calling his show “Hey Faggot.” Coates pointed out that, as a straight man, he would never use that word.
“I had a good friend who had a cabin in upstate New York, which he referred to as the ‘white trash cabin,’” Coates continued. “He was white. I would never refer to that cabin, tell him ‘I’m coming to your white trash cabin’ ― and I think you understand why.”
“The question one must ask is why so many white people have difficulty extending things that are basic laws of how human beings interact to black people,” he added. “And I think I know why.”
“The question one must ask is why so many white people have difficulty extending things that are basic laws of how human beings interact to black people. And I think I know why.”
White privilege ― or white people being raised in a society whose laws and culture communicate to them that “everything belongs to you,” as Coates put it ― makes some white people feel as though they have a right to do anything,
including use a word they have been repeatedly told is inappropriate for them to use.
“For white people, I think the experience of being a hip-hop fan and not being able to use the word ‘nigga’ will be very insightful,” Coates concluded. “This will give you just a little peek into the world of what it means to be black. Because to be black is to walk through the world and watch people doing things that you cannot do.”
Black people cannot drive without fear of being pulled over or even killed by police; black children cannot act out in school without fear of being overly disciplined or even criminalized; black people cannot apply for a job without fear of being rejected because employers discriminate against people of color ― just to name a few.
The moral of the story is: if you’re white, just don’t use the N-word, period.
To listen to Coates’ full breakdown, watch the video at the top of this post.