"I use the n-word. I'm going to continue to use the n-word with my black friends, with my white friends. They are my friends." – Charles Barkley
Summer of 1976, I was three years old. We owned an orange VW Bug and it was nothing for me to crawl into the passenger seat of that car for a quick trip around town. Yes, I said passenger seat. In the era of love, peace and afro sheen, child seats were considered more of a hassle than an asset. So away I went, standing on the seat, holding the overhead handle as tight as I could, with one simple instruction – DON'T LET GO! And when I wasn't standing up on the seat, I was sitting in my mother's lap or stretched out across the backseat aimlessly napping, all without a seat belt. Ignorant? Careless? Barbaric? Maybe. But I'll offer another word, normal. This, my friends, is what parenting and car travel looked liked in 1976. Nobody was wearing seat belts and little kids, we were literally holding on for dear life. It took years of deaths, pain and an abundance of education for society to reevaluate the cultural norm and eventually embrace a better way. Once we knew better, we did better. I think the same is true with the use of the n-word.
There was a moment in the Black American narrative when the n-word felt like bricks hurled in the wind from every direction – a constant barrage of oppressive rage, striking our spirits and damaging our psyche. We shielded ourselves with all the strength and pride we could muster and still, it didn't feel like enough. Then the miraculous happened, we took ownership of the word. Suddenly, the common Black person, no matter how poor and uneducated they were, had an ingenious response for their oppressive society. Yeah Mr. Oppressor, we are niggers! Poor niggers, beautiful niggers, hip niggers, talented niggers, dancing and prancing niggers, prideful niggers, loving niggers, ball playing niggers, progressive niggers, revolutionary niggers. We're fried chicken eating niggers, niggers with doo-rags, niggers in Cadillacs, niggers with guns – niggers who are here to stay no matter what you do, no matter what you call us. That my friends was a powerful moment. Nigger/nigga became the rallying cry for disenfranchised people who wanted the world to know those words would not break them. Your words will not reduce my humanity. I am not what you think of me, I am more.
The n-word is a powerful symbol, of racism and of the ingenious way people survived it. However, today the use of the word runs rampant throughout society, void of context. All races, religions and nationalities use it. It's often used as an exclamation, as a slur or as thoughtless slang. The best case study for the word is to go on Twitter and type in either nigger or nigga. Sit back for a second. Scroll through the scribes. Notice the comfort with which it's spewed publicly. Notice the races of the faces. Notice their ages. Notice their total disregard for history and the naivety with which they embrace the word. There's a term for what you'll notice. It's not rebellious or powerful, it's just blatant ignorance.
At 21, I said the n-word all the time. I was young, naive and rebellious. I had a strong sense of history given to me by my elders. I even minored in African American studies in college and guess what, I still said the n-word. It was my word and no one could convince me otherwise. Oh, to be young. At 40, I'm of a different opinion. The years have taught me that black and white are seductive colors, but most issues exist with a shade of gray. The n-word is no different. I no longer use the word because I don't need to. I have other words that better articulate who I am. I have a greater appreciation for the struggle of Blacks from previous eras. I have a positive view of myself and other Black people, so I choose to refer to them in a more positive way. Also, I no longer live in Black isolation. I'm surrounded by all types of different people. To constantly use that word, might send them the confusing message that I feel it is okay for them to say it. Sorry homies, it is not.
I've made my peace with the n-word. I don't say it, but I'm not here to police who does or doesn't use it. I think the n-word is for people who are finding themselves. It's for the voiceless people who can't fully articulate their message, but need to be heard. It's for uneducated people who have to pass through a period of ignorance until they know their history and find their fully evolved selves. It's for provocative artists who can inject satire and irony into the word providing us with a startling reminder of its past. It's even for racists, to use so they can be identified as such and deal with those consequences. It just isn't for me, or any adult Black person with an education, a job or one iota of racial pride. That means you Charles Barkley, Mike Wilbon and all the rest of you publicly defending the n-word. At your stature in life, with your money, education and media platforms, defending the n-word is like defending allowing your three year old to ride around in the front seat of your car. You know better. And it's about time you start speaking like it. One luv.