Why Only Black People Can Say the N-Word: Three Students Voice Their Opinions

Edited by Sophia Savva

Since the 1990s, hip-hop music experienced rapid growth through globalization and commercialization in American popular culture. Some notable hip-hop artists from late twentieth century are Tupac, Ice Cube, Snoop Dog, Dr. Dre. However, it is important to recognize that hip-hop as a musical and cultural movement did not begin in the ‘90s.

The rise of hip-hop culture and music has influenced contemporary North American culture, embedding itself in fashion, art, poetry, and the English vernacular.

Hip-hop culture has influenced the vernacular to the extent in which English speakers do not realize its impact. In Hip-Hop: An indelible influence on the English Language, Professor Emmett G. Price III writes that “this process of cultural adaptation happened in many of the ethnic communities... within America, yet it was African-American music, containing much of this language, that informed… American mainstream culture.” 

When any underground sub-culture goes mainstream, its fans often lose sight of the movement’s history and they experience a disconnect with the implications for its creation. One of the issues with hip-hop culture’s presence in North American mainstream, is the appropriation and normalization of the N-word in the English vernacular.

I love hip-hop music. I love rapping and singing to catchy, popular songs—especially to Young Money’s “Bed Rock” and Drake’s “Marvin’s Room.” Songs like these, however, share one thing: the frequent use of the n-word.

Despite the evolution of the term’s meaning, its etymology always stuck with me, even when I first listened to “Bed Rock” at age 14. It was a word I was too afraid to utter, and more importantly, it was a term I did not have the desire to say or repeat. When my social circle expanded in high school, I realized that some of my peers, white and people of colour, did not share my feelings: “Why can’t I say it if black people say it? If it’s a song lyric, what’s the harm?”

After the 2017 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show, a backstage video of the VS angels singing to Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” surfaced on Twitter. A day before the video was posted on Twitter, Joyner Lucas shared “I’m Not Racist” on YouTube. Lucas’s lyrics are brilliant, portraying a white man and a black man’s perspective on racism in Trump’s America. Although the white man is depicted as a racist, Trump supporter, it is important to understand that he represents the internalized racism toward black people embedded in all ethnicities and societies.

“The power in a word, n***a, is a different sin. We shouldn’t say it but we do and that’s just what it is. But that don’t mean you can say it just cause you got n***a friends,” Lucas raps. “N***a— that word was originated for you to keep us under. Now when we use it, we know that shit’s how we greet each other. But when you use it, we know there’s a double meaning under.”

Lucas’s song explores the stereotypes in which black folks are associated with in America—and by extension, Western society—and refute each one. The song expresses the pain and resentment black folks feel towards their white counterparts, while explaining how racial prejudice promotes and perpetuates black stereotypes.

To this day, I have non-black friends who repeat the n-word in songs, and I also have non-black friends who use the term as one of endearment. While I personally feel only black people can say the word, I also understand how normalized and desensitized our generation has become in justifying its use in lyric form.

One of the commonly employed arguments, defending the use and repetition of the term, is that words continue to be harmful if it is given the power to. When I asked Tristan Lee-Hyman, a fourth-year student at Victoria College, about his thoughts on this argument, he responded, “Like the LGBTQ+ community’s re-appropriation of the word ‘queer’ to become a positive, inclusive term, the n-word has been—somewhat successfully—changed in the same sense.” He continued, “The power of naming makes words contain multiple meanings; even if those words don’t currently express what they once did, their various connotations don’t disappear.”

Hambo Moyo, a fourth-year student at Victoria College, also offered his opinion on the question: “I understand what they’re saying… but the fact is that the history is still there. The process of trying to use it and drown out that history and create a new meaning behind it—a lot of people will be affected by it. It’s like you’re trying to wipe out 100 years.”

The debate about who and who cannot say the n-word as a lyric seems like it has been ongoing since non-black individuals discovered their love for hip-hop culture and music. While there is a lot controversy around this topic, it is important to consider that black folks’ stance on the debate is not homogenous.

Naomi Egbon, a third-year student at Victoria College, explained, “I think if the person is rapping along to the song, it’s alright but, it just depends on how they say it, even when singing it. If they give it too much enthusiasm, then maybe it’s time to sit down. But if the person says it normally and continues singing—totally fine with me. But every black person feels differently. For the sake of society, if you are not black, just skip the word. Save yourself the fight.”

“In media, in hip-hop, and just black people you’re around, it’s used in such a normal manner; it’s almost in me to use it in a playful manner. I’m obviously very weary,” Hambo observed. “At the end of the day, I’d prefer it to just not be used at all.”

Similar to Hambo’s remark, Naomi commented, “With Black Lives Matter being a current issue to constant police shootings, I think we should hold off on the word for a while. Maybe one day we will be ready to say whatever but today’s not that day.”

Perhaps using the term is not the only issue within this debate. Perhaps, it is about whether or not white folks and other POCs who appropriate the n-word are willing to listen to their black peers' voices and empathize with their experiences. As Tristan offered, “Exercise [your] listening skills, be more empathetic, understand that [your] own understandings of these issues are not enough to lean on.”