I find the idea of a community “owning” a word ludicrous, which is why I oppose the double standard regarding the acceptable use of the N-word.
Before I go on, I want to assure readers that the actual word will not appear anywhere in this essay, even for reference purposes. The N-word is an awful slur, a venomous and emotionally laden epithet that has no place in our social vernacular.
I wish that word could be phased out of the Black community, like the purging of some virus ravaging the body of its host. Perhaps, then we can begin to heal.
Maybe you are already aware of the double standard: the N-word belongs to the Black community. It’s like some unspoken code. Black people can utter it without repercussion. We can say it in barber shop-type settings and in self-deprecating comedy routines and in certain genres of music.
However, the same latitude is not granted to those outside our community. When someone who is not from our community says it, he/she has just crossed the line, even if their intentions were anything but to offend. That word is our word. We own it.
I’d like to dispel that notion. Scratch that. I’d like to beat it over the head with a shovel and bury it in the backyard.
As a black man, I don’t claim ownership of that word. I don’t want ownership. That word has no positive meaning, value, or place in my life. I certainly don’t find it empowering to reclaim a racial slur that connotes generations of pain and prejudice.
There is no double standard. The N-word is not some privileged term that we own. In fact, I wish the Black hip-hop artists and comedians so endeared to the term would relinquish ownership of it, too.
I understand but disagree with the effort by marginalized communities to repurpose, refurbish, or otherwise reclaim disparaging terms. The aim largely is to neutralize the virus: to take this awful word and its awful history and lessen its destructive power by making it exclusively ours. The problem is that instead of letting the virus die, they would prefer to incubate it and create social rules around it, as if hugging the virus closer to our hearts will make it any less dangerous.
I’m also not so naive as to believe that if Black people stopped using the N-word it would suddenly disappear. We, as Black people, cannot control how the word is used by others to denigrate and disparage us, but we are taking control when we choose not to use it. We empower ourselves when we bust to pieces this double standard.
Genuine bigots considering using the term can no longer point to this so-called double standard to legitimize their use of the term. No longer will we have to suffer the tired excuse: “If Black people can say it, then White people should be able to do the same.”