“We have all, always, lived in a world… where innocence must die, if we are ever to begin that journey toward the greater innocence called wisdom.” —James Baldwin
It happened again. This past weekend, during his performance at Hangout Music Festival, Kendrick Lamar invited fans onstage to rap “m.A.A.d. city,” and a young white fan subsequently rapped the n-word before Lamar cut her off. In the video, he tells her, “You gotta bleep one single word, though.” Seemingly incredulous, the fan asks if she did, in fact, say it.
In the aftermath of the event, there have been a slew of ridiculous think pieces, including an article written by Jeremy Helligar on Variety, which argues that if Kendrick doesn’t want a white person to use the n-word, then perhaps rappers should retire it altogether. Helligar notes the question often articulated by white people (“If they can say it, why can’t we?”), and explains why, but he ultimately places the responsibility with rappers to give up the word, presumably to stop its spread.
To place the responsibility of white people acting differently in the hands of Black people, or to even assume that Black people not using the word would stop white people from doing it, is wishful thinking at best. The article, panned by many, led Vince Staples to express his exhaustion over the conversation still taking place. And though I can’t assume why Staples is tired of the debate, I imagine it has something to do with how short the conversation should be. After all, in Staples' own lyrics, he has expressed his feelings over white usage of the word:
"All these white fans screaming when I ask them, ‘Where my n—s at?’ / Goin’ crazy, got me goin’ crazy, I can’t get with that / Wonder if they know I know they won’t come where we kick it at" —Vince Staples ("Lift Me Up")
Within hip-hop culture, to be sure, the debate isn’t clearcut. Though T.I. responded to the Hangout Fest incident by saying, for him, “it still stings” to see white people singing it, Kanye West famously stopped a rendition of “All of the Lights” mid-performance to encourage white fans to use the word when the line about Michael Jackson arrives. Writer Hanif Abdurraqib has written about ScHoolboy Q’s desire to equalize the word for white fans who are helping to pay his bills. Early in their careers, the same argument was made by Donald Glover and Tyler, The Creator, who both encouraged white people to just say it.
The problem with these arguments is that a word fraught with the entire history of racism cannot be equalized when it is still being wielded as a weapon by white folks. President Barack Obama was called it by a police commissioner (who most definitely wasn’t the only person to do so). LeBron James found his house vandalized with a racial slur. Even as Kanye tries to defuse the word’s explosive power, he once recounted on “Chain Heavy” that after interrupting Taylor Swift at the 2009 VMAs, he “got called ‘n—r’ on Twitter so many times / Yo I lived that.” And these are just the stories of celebrities that I can recount, not the infinite number of personal experiences of everyday Black Americans.
Certainly, the word has found freeing power through its usage by African Americans, as when JAY-Z famously explained to Oprah that it is a reappropriation of a dehumanizing word that takes the power from racist whites and puts it in the hands of empowered Black people. Kendrick Lamar later referenced this moment with his own take on the live version of “i” that appears on To Pimp a Butterfly, stating that he promised Dave Chappelle he wouldn’t use the term in a derogatory way but rather uphold it as a statement of African royalty. That Oprah and Variety writer Jeremy Helligar don’t seem to agree here shows that Black Americans are not a monolith, and each can choose whether the word is empowering for them or not.
Yet the obvious difference between the choice of Black Americans to determine whether or not this word is liberating, and the choice of white Americans to determine whether or not the word is well-meaning, is that one group has historically and continually been on the receiving end of this word as a tool for dehumanization and the other group, simply, has not.
In 2015, a bus full of fraternity members from the University of Oklahoma were caught on camera chanting a song laden with the n-word and references to lynching. The lyrics: “You can hang from a tree, but there’ll never be a n—r in SAE.” Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh was disgusted with the backlash that followed: if Kanye had sung it, he argued, it would’ve been a hit. Stripping the word of its context, Limbaugh equated a pro-lynching anthem with rap songs that empower Black rappers to use the word toward liberating ends.
White people who claim they are just singing a word, and that they have no ill will toward Black people, too often forget that the word, when used by white people, becomes more than a word. The fraternity song housed the word within a larger context of a racist sentiment of exclusion and white violence, one that had apparently been taught to the fraternity members, but only one student apologized. If a rapper had been singing some version of this song, it almost definitely would have been a searing critique of white supremacy rather than a perpetuation of its ideals. As Michael Eric Dyson wrote of the incident in his book Tears We Cannot Stop, by placing the blame on one student and not a larger institution, by not accounting for the song’s history, the apology became just another attempt to protect white innocence without consequence.
The conversation about the n-word is not about who can say the word. Anyone can say the word. I hesitate to even suggest that this is a conversation about who should say the word, since those who claim they have the right to say it often suggest that I as an individual have no right to stop their free speech. And even though I do not have the power nor desire to stop anyone’s free speech—I am merely staking a claim in a contentious conversation—I can anticipate the whitelash that will come merely from writing this article. The people who claim their thoughts are being policed are often the same people who do not know what it is like to have our bodies policed.
So, instead, I’ll say this: this is a conversation about whether you as an individual with the freedom to say whatever you want will take into consideration the legacy of a word, how it was and is used to dehumanize an entire people, how this people—though not singular—created something new out of the word as a means of survival to attacks on their humanity, how even now in the 21st century everyone from white supremacists to police commissioners and fraternity members use it as a verbal assault weapon, and why you think it’s different when you use it, that it somehow shouldn’t sting in the same way. After all, you’re not those white people.
But intent does not equal impact. If we are being told by even one person that they would like for us to refrain from using a word that has been used against them and will never, not once, be used against us, on what ground do we stand on? What do you lose, really, when you don’t say the word? Perhaps more importantly, what are you trying to hold onto when you do?
Ta-Nehisi Coates was asked during a Q&A about white usage of the word when listening to rap, to which he astutely responded:
“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. When you’re white in this country, you think that everything belongs to you. You think that you have a right to everything. You’re conditioned this way… it’s the fact that the laws and the culture tell you this. You have the right to go where you want to go, do what you want to do, be however, and people just gotta accommodate themselves to you. So here comes this word that you feel like you invented, and now someone gonna’ tell you how to use the word that you invented. ‘Why can’t I use it? Everyone else gets to use it… I have to inconvenience myself and hear this song, and I can’t sing along?’ … I think for white people, I think the experience of being a hip-hop fan and not being able to use the word n—, it 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, that you can’t join in and do. And so I think there’s actually a lot to be learned from refraining.”
Hip-hop offers a place for people of all races to come together, but that doesn’t mean that all of a sudden race and racism disappear. The desire for equality is not enough to materialize the reality of equality. We are accountable to the communities we belong to, and knowing that, we might see that we are not just individuals with the freedom to say anything so long as we mean well. Meaning well will always be a poor substitute for doing right by our neighbors. Yet until we see ourselves as more than individuals, we will continue looking out for no one’s interests but our own. And too often, those interests are deeply ignorant of history, responsibility, and true freedom.