N-Word Blues

“Bruh, you shouldn’t of done that. You about to get your ass schooled.”

“Sorry, but yes, this reminds me: For those of you who are new to my room, the n-word is not allowed here. If you’d like to know my reasons, ask.”

“Bro, she like rules. No food. No phones. No nigga. Oh, shit, I’m sorry, Maryam. My bad. Won’t happen again. I swear.”

“But, like, can we talk about this for a minute? I wanna know, like, what’s the big deal? It’s just a word, and everybody be saying it, like, all the time.”

“Does that make it right, Diana? Does everybody saying it make it okay to say that word?”

“Here we go.”

“But it’s just like son, or bruh. It’s just something people say.”

“Is it? Is saying a word that was used to degrade and dehumanize black people the same as calling someone a son or brother?”

“No, but, like.”

“Yeah, it’s not like we letting white people call us that. We saying it to each other, so it’s different.”

“Yeah, it don’t mean that thing no more.”

“How did it stop meaning that thing?”

“Through, like, music. Hip-hop and rap, and shit.”

“So the music changed the meaning of the word?”

“Yeah, it did.”

“So, what does the word mean now?”

“You know, like, dude.”

“Dude, who says dude anymore?”

“But what’s the point of using that specific word?”

“’Cause, like, it’s power.”

“Yeah, it’s, like, people are taking back the word.”

“Taking it back? But it came from the white man. It always belonged to the white man.”

“I don’t mean taking it back. I mean, like, making it they own.”

“So, taking a word that was used like a whip on the souls of black people and using it to address each other is empowering?”

“Yo, see, why you gotta make it so heavy and shit? We been talking about one word for, like, half the period. It’s just a word, yo.”

“But why use that word? Why not call each other king or something?”

“King? Yo, now you bugging.”

“No, I’m serious: Why use a word rooted in slavery, instead of crowning each other with a word that’s actually powerful?”

“But, like, seriously, why do everything always gotta be about slavery and shit that happened, like, a thousand years ago?”

“I’m sorry, Maryam. I don’t mean to be rude or nothing, but maybe you just can’t get it ‘cause you’re white, you know?”

“Oh, snap.”

“No, no, that’s okay. Maybe. Or maybe I’m too old. I’ll never be okay with men being called the n-word and women being called the b word.”

“Can I ask you a question?”

“Of course.”

“But, like, I really don’t want to hurt your feelings or be out of line or anything.”

“It’s fine, Tonya. We’re talking about race. If it’s a real conversation, it’s bound to be at least a little uncomfortable.”

“Okay, well. Do you think that maybe you, like, have guilt issues or something? Like, maybe when you hear the word, you feel guilty about slavery?”

“Yo, she ain’t white like that. She ain’t from here.”

“That don’t matter, my ni… That don’t matter, bro. White people all guilty about slavery.”

“I don’t feel guilty. But I do feel responsible. Not for what happened back then. But for what happens now.”

“But you’re saying it’s racist to use that word. But, like, isn’t it also racist for a white person to tell black people it’s wrong to use a specific word?”

“Yea, and you always talking about how we need to stand up for what we believe in.”

“Yes, but what does using the n-word have to do with what you believe in? What does it tell us you believe in?”

“Like, our culture. That word is a big part of hip-hop, and hip-hop is a big part of black culture.”

“Okay, so when the same song that uses the n-word also calls women by the h and b words, is that part of black culture, too? Because I don’t know any black mother who would want her daughter called by these names and say it’s in the name of standing up for black people’s beliefs or culture.”

“But why do white people always gotta decide everything?”

“We don’t. We shouldn’t. And it’s not like that in this room. We make decisions together. You get to decide what texts you’d like to study. You get to suggest movies, lesson topics, and trips. You get to voice your opinions on everything all the time. But in this room, for the one hour you are here every day, we won’t use the n-word. The same way that we won’t use phones, or eat, or throw things across the room into the trashcan. Out of respect. And we can talk about this more later. Hey, maybe I’ll have you guys do a debate on whether it’s okay to use the word. Or write a research paper on the history or the word and the current discourse on its use and meaning. Oh, or maybe Power Point presentations! Hey, maybe you guys could interview people, and take a survey, or something.”

“Word?”

“Yo, you buggin.”

“Nah, I ain’t doing none of that shit.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

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