The Ethics of the N-Word

When I wrote “Why Black History Month Isn’t Racist But White History Month Would Be (and Other White Conundrums),” I summarized and closed with the following sentence: “Because you know your history and because you are a decent person.”

Of all white conundrums, “Why is it OK for black people to say the N-word but not white people?” is probably the most embarrassing. The answer to this question is of course identical to the conclusion of the prior article, but I did not include the infamous racial slur because it seemed like the topic deserved its own piece. Further, while the answer is the same the question is a bit different. The last article concerned why white people shouldn’t celebrate their race the way many black people do. That had something to do with whiteness — what should white identity really entail? White people being able to freely say racial slurs has nothing to do with whiteness. Only blackness.

Asking why it’s “not OK” for whites to use the N-word is really asking why it isn’t socially acceptable. Asking why something isn’t socially acceptable is asking why a majority opinion exists that this something is immoral. What’s socially acceptable is always rooted in ethics, from slavery to the age of consent, and thus the question is actually “Why is it immoral for whites to say the N-word but not blacks?”

Morality concerns what does harm to others. Our answer is thus self-evident. Whites who use the slur do more harm (psychologically, emotionally) to black folk than other black people who use it.

“It’s like a knife,” Ice Cube told Bill Maher after Maher used the slur. “It’s been used as a weapon against us by white people.” Maya Angelou described it as a “poison.” Human beings, she said, “are worth everything. Women are better than being called the ‘b’ word, and blacks are better than being called the ‘n’ word… You are better than being called the word that would deny your humanity.” It is astonishing that some white people seem confused that a term historically used to mark blacks as subhuman, worthy of oppression, rape, and murder, might cause emotional distress, from embarrassment to rage. (It’s not actually astonishing; white people have a long history of lacking basic empathy and critical thinking skills.) The slur causes such pain that physical dangers like knives and poison often accompany its description.

While some African Americans use the N-word and others despise it so much they do not (Ice Cube and Angelou, respectively), in either case the word coming from a white person has a different connotation because of our history. That is obvious and hardly complex. Even if the user considers himself or herself an antiracist or speaking without racist intent, the impact needs to be considered as well. It’s what ethical people do. They think about how their actions affect others; for the N-word, the impact of a white user is simply not the same as that of a black user, even if some black people are also bothered when fellow blacks use the term.

If what’s immoral is based on what causes harm to others, we know then that varying amounts of harm translates to varying degrees of wrong. Ethics exist on a continuum, a sliding scale; they are not black and white. A poor man who steals $25 from a rich man to buy a meal because he is hungry has not committed a wrong as grave as a rich man who steals $25 from a poor man because he is greedy. The intents are quite different, and while the financial loss is the same it hardly has the same impact. A woman who kills a rapist in self-defense has not committed so grave an immoral act (in fact, none at all in my view) as a woman who kills her husband to cash in a life insurance policy. Different intent, even different impact: though the loss of either man may cause pain to their family and friends, one scenario rids the world of a rapist.

Knowing ethics are situational, it’s easy enough to imagine a continuum for the immorality of the N-word, from least wrong (or perhaps not wrong at all) to most wrong, such as:

  • A white person quoting a black person criticizing the word or a white racist using the word (as a means of education)
  • A white person using it when singing hip-hop alone in a car (only potential harm exists: frequent use of the word privately could lead to public use)
  • A white person using it in a joke or mimicking its use as a term of endearment among black people (these contexts cause emotional and psychological harm)
  • A white person using it to degrade, vilify, oppress (overt racism, extreme emotional and psychological harm)

Other scenarios could be conjured. While some will object, insisting these are all equally immoral (or disagree on the order — perhaps the first and second could be switched, as the first one is public and might cause more harm), emphasizing that the use of the N-word is on an ethical continuum is key to demonstrating why it’s not OK for white people to use it, why it isn’t a double standard, hypocritical, all that intellectual laziness.

Imagine the scenarios we would put before those above. These would be situations even less unethical, perhaps morally acceptable. For example, a black person singing along to hip-hop, using the N-word as a term of endearment with a friend, writing a song that includes it, etc. None of these carry the harm or potential harm that the examples featuring white folk do (even though they may carry some, such as upsetting other African Americans who do not use the term, influencing white folk, and so on).

So we see how different contexts and different speakers cause varying degrees of harm, which changes the immorality accordingly. To be moral, we whites must be cognizant of the pain we can cause. You do not use the N-word because you know your history and because you are a decent person.

(Here I must acknowledge my bias. As a white writer interested in race, I often am in the first category for whites above, quoting others word-for-word so as to preserve the full power, whether wickedness or wisdom, of the N-word. I do not censor the words of James Baldwin:

What you say about somebody else, anybody else, reveals you. What I think of you as being is dictated by my own necessities, my own psychology, my own fears, and desires. I’m not describing you when I talk about you, I’m describing me… I didn’t invent the nigger… I’ve always known that I am not the nigger. But if I am not the nigger, and if it’s true your invention reveals you, then who is the nigger?… You’re the nigger, baby. It isn’t me.

Nor do I censor — whitewash — the true wickedness and hatred of whites who use the slur to tear down and demean black people, such as when a Baltimore teacher, in addition to calling her black students “idiots” and “stupid,” screamed that if they didn’t take schoolwork seriously each would end up a “punk-ass nigger who’s going to get shot.”

There are times when the N-word is redacted not to protect black people but to protect white people. Not all readers will agree, but I think there are moments when quoting the word — in writing; verbally falls elsewhere on the moral continuum — can remind whites of its evil, its pain, in the same way exposure to the true barbarism of our racial history can deeply impact white people and change them in positive ways. In a time of white denial, such an education of the word’s full power may be helpful.)

But even after understanding the moral difference between users of different colors and accepting that whites should not use the term, whites may yet have a remaining conundrum: “Why do black people use the term when it’s hate speech targeting them?”

While again emphasizing that many African Americans detest the word no matter who says it and would never say it themselves, we need to understand that appropriating derogatory labels is a very human thing to do, almost to the point of being predictable. Victims often seize the hate speech of perpetrators and adopt it because it strips the latter of their power.

There are many examples in world history of this. “Yankee Doodle” was originally a song used by the British to mock the American troops during the Revolution (yankee itself was likewise a term of derision). The song was quickly appropriated by the Americans. Next, observe what the GLAAD Glossary of Terms notes of queer: “Once considered a pejorative term, queer has been reclaimed by some LGBT people to describe themselves; however, it is not a universally accepted term even within the LGBT community.” Impressionist was created to mock Monet and others who didn’t paint in an ultra-realist fashion. If a sneering art critic inspires the reclamation and redesign of insults, why wouldn’t white supremacists? A jesuit was originally someone criticized for using the name of Jesus too often. Suffragette was first intended to mock militant women. Nasty woman became a badge of honor in 2016, as did deplorable. There are countless other reappropriations, varying in their degrees of popularity, from tree hugger to bitch. Parents even teach children to handle bullies in a similar manner. Adopting words meant to attack and insult you is a human trait that speaks to our resiliency, feelings of self-worth, and deep appreciation for irony and tragicomedy. Understanding this should erase white people’s assumptions that black people who use the N-word are expressing nothing but self-loathing.