Last night, I watched ESPN’s Special Report The “N” Word, and it nearly brought tears to my eyes. Although I missed the beginning of the show, I found it very interesting, but sometimes hard, to hear the various viewpoints of the panelists who were invited to speak on this topic. It is both revealing and sad for me to see how divided people from all racial backgrounds are about the use of this highly charged word. Personally, I’ve come a long way on this subject. My thinking has changed over time. And I think, for the better.
When I was a young dude, I routinely used the N-word in my vocabulary, until one day, a brotha who was younger than me, stepped to me and assertively said, “Yo, B, before you were a nigger in America, you were a king in Africa.” His statement may have been a romanticized view of history – because not all black African men were kings – but his challenge did stop me from carelessly using the word in the future. His intervention made me re-think how I spoke to other members of my race. In an instant, he helped me to reframe my thinking. Since that moment, I’ve dropped the N-word like a bad habit. Over time, I’ve learned so much about white supremacy, the greatness of black people, and how deeply ingrained internalized oppression is for so many of us. I’ve grown to better appreciate the power of words and language, and today I cringe when I hear the N-word used by black people, young and old. I am often disappointed when the N-word is used by those who I consider to be politically aware and socially conscious.
For me, the history of murder, genocide, enslavement, and discrimination in connection with the N-word outweighs my freedom to own it and adapt it as a positive term of endearment. I do understand the current justification of the use of the word and why people use it so pervasively. I get it. Language is malleable, and the social meanings of words shift over time. But I choose not to take on the racial slurs used by my oppressors and then use them haphazardly against my own people – especially when it’s easy enough to NOT use them. There are plenty of endearing words in the English language that could easily replace the N-word – words that could help us to build our racial pride and self-esteem to a higher level. With all that we have gone through, survived, and triumphed over collectively – and all that we continue to experience today – I wish that we could use more beautiful, powerful, empowering, affirming, loving words with one another, rather than embrace a word that historically has been used to demean us, and make us feel so ugly.