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Charles's avatar

Do African Americans who use the "n-word" perpetuate racism?

Asked by Charles (4815points) January 3rd, 2012

Not that long ago, the “n-word” was used as a racial slur towards African Americans. Today however, African Americans often refer to themselves using the “n-word.” Is this appropriate? Is this perpetuating racism? Has the meaning of the word really changed? If so, then why is it unacceptable for a Caucasian to even utter the word?

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29 Answers

ANef_is_Enuf's avatar

I don’t know the answer to this question, and I don’t feel comfortable even attempting to speculate. I know that I cringe when anyone uses that word, I don’t care about the context.

Luiveton's avatar

Not really no. Think about this:
When you call yourself an idiot, you wouldn’t feel offended at all. If anyone else, however, calls you an idiot for no reason you’ll feel offended. Notice I simply used the word idiot so it might not be a very good analogy but oh well.
So the point is that they’d feel offended if someone else calls them ‘that word’. But they don’t mind it if they call each other that.
I’ve never actually heard anyone Caucasian say this before but I’m going to go through with that example anyways: I’d be offended if someone from a different racial background referred to me as ‘white trash’. If someone Caucasian says that, however, it won’t be as offensive because they’re technically also referring to themselves.
So to make things a bit more explicit, they’re not really encouraging racism towards themselves, it’s just frequent slang that basically takes the form of their colloquial language.
Personally, I don’t like hearing the word at all , especially when it’s seriously mentioned. And I consider it HIGHLY offensive when a white person insults anyone from a different racial background. But I think it sounds less offensive when you refer to your race.
Also, it’s very common in movies. It doesn’t sound bad in comedy but it makes me cry in historical ones.

Blackberry's avatar

Some people of any race or culture perpetuate their own stereotypes, and I’m not sure why. It has nothing to do solely with african americans. There are people everywhere that know they are part of a demographic, yet find solidarity in this. Maybe it is a bonding word like “brother” or “dude”. I don’t like the word and I’m not sure why some say it.

I haven’t actually heard the word used in a serious manner in a long time. I keep seeing this from some people that should probably think in a larger context: “Where I live, these people do this, so why do most of these types of people do this?” I think it’s a fallacious thought process.

JLeslie's avatar

I’ve heard a lot of arguments back and forth about this, and for now my conclusion is, if black people do not want the word used by non-blacks, they should not use it themselves, at least not in mixed company. Although I agree with the idea that we can say things about our own, but outsiders cannot, that type of conversation generally needs to be kept behind closed doors, with the exception of comedy, and even that is tricky. As far as specifically using a word, how will people easily know it is not ok to use it if you are using it? For instance, Jews make fun of themselves all the time in comedy, I don’t ever hear Jewish people themselves using the word Kyke, not even behind closed doors in an all Jewosh setting.

So my conclusion is people/groups cannot use a word and than forbid its use for others. It doesn’t work in my opinion. Does it perpetuate racism? Probably not. A word spoken does not make someone racist, it is the feelings, intentions, and actions that come with the word that really matter. But, the word nigger for most black people when said by a white person conjures up feelings of racism, oppression, even fear. That is why we should not use it, because the feelings of the minority matter most in these cases, but they can’t have it both ways I think. If they want to change the meaning of the word, then they have to open it up to everyone. I have a hard time imagining that specific word every changing enough to be acceptible.

I have seen that soe works of literature have been changed to remove the word, so high school kids are not even reading the word nigger. I have a problem with changing the books, which kind of contradicts what I said above in terms of not using the word at all.

tedd's avatar

I would say they do… but not in the way you are thinking.

Black people who use that word tend to be using it in ignorant ways, combined with often ignorant or “bad” behavior… which other people will see, and then begin to associate with the entire black race… hence perpetuating those peoples racist beliefs.

Deelon_Pearson's avatar

Lots of things promote racism. It is hard to say what makes it worse. Perhaps, such a use of the n-word flips the formerly only-negative word into a positive word. Only one’s homies can have the honor of saying such a thing. Anyway, I said this before on another post, but the problem isn’t how someone reacts to racism… its the racism itself. That is, I don’t like the idea of blaming the victims for the problems. Unless they are black racists, calling other blacks the n-word. But, that seems just nuts. Its really more like blaming a woman for wearing make-up for being subject to illicit remarks. Blame the source folks, I say. Yes, just maybe, other things have impact too… but, that is all hard to say, and probably not even good to say. The more I think about it, perhaps even this line of questioning is more of something that would perpetuate racism. That is, people ALWAYS say this and similar things. To me, it kind of suggests that blacks are too damn stupid and walk around causing their own racism by doing A, B or C. So, if you want to limit racism, maybe its best to ask better questions. Anyway, I don’t mean to come off too harshly. I just want folks to ponder that thought. In total, we’ve come a long way baby. So, racism is very much less than in the past…

Aethelflaed's avatar

Maybe a little bit, I don’t really feel like I’m in a position to judge that. I know it’s a contested issue in the black community. But it’s really, really low down on my list of things that (might) perpetuate racism; it really doesn’t bum me out that much that there’s a small list of slurs I can’t say.

JLeslie's avatar

@Deelon_Pearson But, wouldn’t it be the blacks themselves accusing a person who is not black of racism if the nonblack person used the word? You say we should point out how black people cause their own racism, did you mean black people themselves should be questioning and pointing those things out? Or, who?

Another example you gave is women being blamed for illicit remarks because they wear make-up, but it seems to me the analogy would be women wearing make-up and saying no one else can wear because they look like sluts when they do, but this special group of women can do it because they identify as the original make-up users. I think most women would be fighting for everyone to be able to use make-up and not have to endure any bad remarks or come-ons. That would be like saying we as black people want to be able to use the word nigger, change the connotation, and let everyone use it.

I don’t know if I was able to communicate well what I am thinking? Sorry if it is confusing.

jrpowell's avatar

I always thought of it as a way to make the word meaningless. But it is still so loaded that it isn’t at that point yet. I have gay friends that call other gay people fag.

And it is OK to say nigger when discussing the the word. It isn’t okay to use it as a way to put someone down.

JLeslie's avatar

@johnpowell That’s how I feel about using the word in a discussion, I wrote it out too.

I don’t think the word is meaningless to people though, especially the ones who use it ironically, they just want exclusivity in using it from what I can tell.

LostInParadise's avatar

Maybe I have the sound and meaning of the word bound too closely in my mind, but I find the very sound of it to be irritating.

CaptainHarley's avatar

As I have been at pains to explain to people for many years now, words have only that power over us which we grant them. Words used in an attempt to make white people hurt as much as the N word hurts blacks are almost always doomed to failure: redneck, crackah, honky, peckerwood, etc. It seems to me that use of the N word by blacks when referring to each other is, at least in part, an attempt to make the word more familiar and mundane so as to take away some of the hurtfulness blacks have always felt from the word. It also seems to me that the N word has taken on several differing degrees and subtle shades of meaing among blacks, depending upon how it is used, in what context, with what emphasis and inflection, etc.

All of that seems useful to me, because the N word is, after all, just a word. Where we err is in giving it power over us.

LostInParadise's avatar

Try this. Say the n word aloud. Notice how your upper lip curls into a sneer. I say the word is evil.

Stinley's avatar

@LostInParadise I dont agree. Words aren’t inherently evil, it’s what we mean when we say them that counts. Anyway saying nice could make you sneer as well, though I don’t actually think either do.

hypntize's avatar

If it’s solidly alone in art form, who wouldn’t accept it as is.

CaptainHarley's avatar


It would be more accurate to say that sometimes the intent behind the words is evil.

SABOTEUR's avatar

I don’t know anymore, I really don’t. I’m beginning to believe that the only people Black people who are really offended are old folks like me.

Case in point…took the kids to McDonald’s for breakfast prior to dropping them off at school (teenagers…their choice). While waiting near the car for them I overhear 2 McDonald’s employees remarks:

Black male employee (b)): “What you do with the trash?”
White male employee (w): “I threw it away.”
b: “What you do with the trash?”
w: “I told you I threw it away.”
b: “What you do with the boxes?”
w: “I threw ‘em away, nigger.”

I’m like… WTF! Back in the day, if a white guy called you nigger to your face, it was time to throw down, you know…but the black guy didn’t seem the least bit offended. I figure this snatch of conversation represented how they normally address each other. Who knows how the black dude addresses his white co-worker. It really made me think that I must out of step with the times.

Or perhaps this was an isolated event.

It’s like profanity on tv and in music. It’s in so much of the stuff that my kids watch and listen to that I can’t screen it anymore. It’s just too prevalent.

So, I don’t know what’s offensive and what’s not.

Guess it depends on who you’re talking to…

JLeslie's avatar

@SABOTEUR What you do with the trash? Bothers me just as much as the white guy using the word nigger.

I think even if the negative connotation eventually is removed from nigger, it still is odd to call someone blacky or Spic or Kike or WOP or (let’s see how many we can come up with) anything in the situation you mention. Why is race being pointed out at all between the two men? I wonder if nigger in that situation is not about race, but rather used like the word stupid or idiot?

I hate to say, but I think it has more to do with social class than anything. I doubt black men attending Yale are using the word. The divide between socioeconomic classes is vast, and seems to be getting larger, which is dissappointing. Not only larger because of the economic situation in the US today, but also because too many in the lower classes don’t aspire to speak standard English, they think their slang or dialect is ok for every situation, instead of adjusting when appropriate. Who knows, maybe those men you saw do adjust when dealing with the public. I hope so.

Blackberry's avatar

@SABOTEUR That was definitely an isolated event, or two very, very close friends lol.

SABOTEUR's avatar

@JLeslie Excellent perspective, though I would call into question the very last sentence of your reply. Even if these guys were very close friends, you’d think they’d be aware enough to monitor their language so that customers overhearing them wouldn’t take offense. It’s probably accurate, though, that they didn’t care who heard them, since many young people today (at least in Baltimore) demonstrate a complete disregard for anyone they don’t know…especially elders.

CaptainHarley's avatar

Sometimes when I read the conversations on here, it’s almost as though some of you live on a different planet! “Many young people today demonstrate a complete disregard for anyone they don’t know… especially elders.” That is not my experience, but I think living in a small town in Texas lends itself to an entirely different approach to interpersonal relations than does, say, living in a huge city like Baltimore.

JLeslie's avatar

@SABOTEUR If they are only going to watch their speech with one group, I hope it is children more than the elderly. I agree, at all times in or near the store while in uniform they should behave as though they are in front of the public on duty, even if they are off the clock. But, I find so many employees where I live are clueless about customer service, or being professional. I blame the store managers, and the lack of training in companies today. There is some sort of assumption that people are born with knowing how to give good customer service, act appropriately at work, etc, and most of the time that is not the case. Especially young employees need guidance, education, and rules regarding service and how to make patrons feel comfortable and happy to give their business to your establishment.

I think @Blackberry is right, the guys were probably close friends.

OpryLeigh's avatar

This is something I have wondered for a long time. It seems like such a double standard to me and if there’s one thing I hate it’s a double standard. Like @ANef_is_Enuf said, I am uncomfortable with the word regardless of who is using it.

Deelon_Pearson's avatar

@JLeslie – Thanks for the reply. I think it is important to appreciate that words have multiple meanings. Look at the dictionary. Almost all words have multiple meanings. It depends on many things, like context, etc. When one black man says the n-word it is nearly always an entirely different context than another person using the n-word. Its like saying something is “bad” and meaning it is good. For example, a rapper might say “That n__ is bad,” and it is meant positively. However, if folks go around blaming that rapper for perpetuating racism, the person accusing the rapper of such perpetuation is perhaps unwittingly one of the actual perpetuators… just say’n.

Deelon_Pearson's avatar

By the way, I tend to think that use of the “n” word is unwise, childish and poor use of language. To some extent, it is like use of any other profanity—i.e., used for shock value, and typically not all that impressive to anyone with any level of education. Similarly, “You’r a f-ing genious” would be an example of using profanity poorly, albeit intended to be positively.

SABOTEUR's avatar

“I can say it, but you can’t.”

The end result is the unnecessary alienation of a whole bunch of people for no good reason.

So what do you do about it?

1. Use it and accept the consequences.
2. Not use it, but be angry and confused because other people use it.
3. Not be bothered one way or the other. The issue doesn’t exist for you.

Your choice, I imagine, would depend on how much emotional investment you have in it.

JLeslie's avatar

@Deelon_Pearson Yeah, I don’t think it perpetuates racism, I just think it perpetuates the use of the word. I agree words can be used in many different ways. But, if a white guy calls a black guy nigger even with the best intentions, if they aren’t close friends it can still be easily taken the wrong way, don’t you think? The McDonald’s example, if young kids overhear those guys talking about the trash being taken out and then a kid goes back to school and uses the word he ciuld get in all sorts of trouble. It is like profanity, I agree with that too, but the child using the word might get in big trouble with his peers, if he says fuck or shit his peers might giggle and he is just in trouble with his teacher.

CaptainHarley's avatar

Profanity, of whatever stripe, is the last resort of a weak vocabulary, and usually a weak mind. @Deelon_Pearson has the right idea.

mattbrowne's avatar

It could also be seen as a reminder of the reality of widespread, cruel racisms in the past.

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