Why Explaining 'The N-Word' To Non-Black People Is So Damn Exhausting

One scene in "Dear White People" perfectly nails the issue.
A scene from "Dear White People."
A scene from "Dear White People."

Every black person who lives in the United States at some point or another comes to accept one thing: the “N-word” is not going away . Whether you use it or not, whether you are OK with it or deeply offended by it, it’s a word weighted down with so much history and so much pain that is impossible to avoid. (We have left the word uncensored in the discussion that follows.)

The general consensus among most black people is that “nigger” is a word best left for us to grapple with. In other words: non-black people — and especially white people — shouldn’t use it. That means colloquially or derogatorily, in context or out. And honestly, we know you’re going to use it anyway, but don’t use it around us.

It would take too long to unpack all the arguments and counterarguments about why white people should avoid the word altogether. Countless people have explained why there are no special excuses or circumstances for white people saying nigga, and have outlined why this is not a double standard.

What’s rarely unpacked, though, is the emotional and spiritual labor that goes into trying to explain to non-black people why they shouldn’t say it. Netflix’s “Dear White People” illustrates this frustration beautifully.

Episode five of Netflix’s new series “Dear White People” is the most talked about episode of the show, for good reason. The episode, directed by Oscar-winner Barry Jenkins, follows a day in the life of Reggie (Marque Richardson) ― a “woke” leader of the fictional Winchester University’s Black Student Union who pines after student activist Sam (Logan Browning).

In one scene, the scene of the episode, Reggie, who is black, ends up at a frat party with mostly white students. The vibe is chill, he’s dancing and having a good time, until a white friend named Addison drops n-bombs while singing along to a hip-hop song. Reggie asks him not to say it anymore. Addison explains that he doesn’t “really” use that word, he’s just singing along.

“It’s not like I’m a racist,” he insists.

And there it is. That moment when you’re asking another person to respect you by not using a word that you find demeaning and offensive, and that person makes it all about them, suddenly focusing more on the perceived jab at their character than on how they’re making you feel.

Reggie puts it perfectly when he says: “Just don’t say ‘nigga.’ Like, you didn’t have to say it just then... I mean, how would you feel if I started rapping songs that say ‘honky’ and ‘cracker’?”

“I wouldn’t care at all.”

“Exactly. That’s the difference. Like, that you don’t care. And I do. Like, you get it?”

Of course, Addison doesn’t get it, and the conversation quickly escalates as he insists that he’s “not some redneck,” he points out that he’s been good to Reggie by allowing him to party in his house, and he laments the fact that political correctness has made it so that we “can’t have fun anymore.”

Part of what makes this experience emotionally draining, what makes every instance like this so exhausting for many black people, is that often interactions like these take place in public, in real life or online, and a lot of mental energy just goes in to quelling one’s anger, lest we get dismissed as angry or emotional or aggressive.

Like Reggie, we have to compromise our humanity in order for it be more visible to the white person who doesn’t get “what the big deal is.” That reality becomes crystal clear in the scene, as we watch him stare down the barrel of a police officer’s gun, after his argument with Addison results in someone at the party calling the cops.

It’s exhausting to have to explain that the more colloquial “nigga” isn’t a fancy club that only black people are allowed to join. It’s exhausting to explain that one’s use of the word isn’t based on how nice you are or how many black friends you have or how many hip-hop songs you know. It’s exhausting to have to explain that using “nigga” comes as a response to all the real-world ramifications of being black. It’s exhausting to do all of this and know, in most cases, that the person you’re explaining this to will remain incredulous.

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