White Kids & the N-Word: A Black Mom Weighs In

Janelle Harris
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White kids saying the 'n' wordI am a product of the hip-hop generation. I grew up with the music -- it told my story, played the soundtrack to my life experiences. I was in awe of the skill and talent it took to forge Busta Rhymes’ creative flow or Jay-Z’s punchlines or Chuck D.’s political verses.

Then corporate America got ahold of hip-hop, and the culture got corrupted into this caricature of brown people in general and the ‘hood specifically (because, unbeknownst to lots of folks, we don’t all live in the so-called ‘hood). Hip-hop became a money-maker, a spectacle of the black community. Suburban white kids who knew as much about living in the streets of Brooklyn or Compton as a Muslim knows about cooking pork roast were given what they thought was a bird’s eye view into true life. With their unofficial hip-hop ‘hood pass, people started to believe it was okay to start tossing around the N-word.

Ugh. That friggin’ N-word. No matter who says it, it's an embarrassment. I’m disgusted and humiliated down to my socks whenever someone brandishes it all loud out in public. Needless to say, I find myself peeved on the daily, given that I live in a neighborhood swimming with 1) old playas who can’t let go of their smooth-talking pimp daddy days, like they’re part of the cast of a continuously running blaxploitation flick, and 2) young knuckleheads who have no clue what a blaxploitation flick is because they have no connection to their history or culture, aside from what’s crammed down their throats during class trips to D.C. landmarks like Frederick Douglass’ home. Kids toss that term around with the same effortlessness that normal people might use for ‘weather’ or ‘lunch date.’ 

But when I hear white kids say it, it makes my blood boil even hotter.

A few days ago, I was praying my way through a ride on public transportation, which is always an adventure in wrong-ness. A cluster of teenagers, my arch nemeses in the tiny confinement of a subway car because they’re generally loud, brash, and disrespectful, were being — you guessed it — loud, brash, and disrespectful. One of them, the ringleader in the band of wolves, hollered some joke over to his friend two seats away that he punctuated with the N-word. 

This kid throwing around that infamous epithet didn’t even qualify to be called one in the ol’ school kind of way. He was white. A white boy calling his black friend a nigga.

I leaned over, narrowed my eyes, and told him that that was the worst thing to come out of his mouth since he parked his rude rear end in the handicapped seat. Then I engaged him in an intense Q&A that had him scurrying off the train one stop ahead of his scheduled exit. What did that word mean to him? I asked. Why did he say it?

“Because my friends say it,” he mumbled into his collar.

“But you know that doesn’t make it right, don’t you? Just because you hear someone else say it doesn’t make it okay. It’s a hurtful word. It’s a trifling word. It’s a word you shouldn’t be saying, especially if you don’t know what it means,” I fired back.

I know the kid didn’t know any better. I also know he’s still saying it when he’s out of earshot of crazy ladies on the train and in the familiar easiness of his circle of black friends because they’re still saying it because they hear their parents and neighbors and most certainly their favorite rappers saying it. That word is so ingrained in some circles of black culture that you can’t go far without being accosted by it — the barbershop, the hair salon, the mechanic’s garage. And don’t go to a sporting event or a nightclub and think it won’t slap you across the back of the head. We’re dealing with centuries of conditioning that told us we’re niggers, and a whole heap of us have ever-so-happily embraced it in an effort to take power from the expression.

But for us conscious enough to know better, the N-word still flexes its mighty offensive muscle, particularly when it comes out of the mouths of kids who remind us where the word came from in the first place.

Do you think the N-word should still carry a social stigma in this day and age, or is it just another term that’s lost its impact, like “bitch”?


Image via salty_soul/Flickr

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