From The Archives: White People And The N-Word (2016)
Yes, It's 2016. No, It's Still Not OK For White People To Rap The N-Word.
Editor's Note: This piece was originally published on a once-promising local media site called Raleigh Agenda on September 15, 2016. RIP Raleigh Agenda.
I did not enjoy Young Thug’s set at Hopscotch.
To be honest, it’s partly just because he started obscenely late, wasting the time of more than 1,000 people during a music festival that packs every last minute with interesting programming. It was also partly because I could tell three minutes into the set that I had already seen this show before, and it was called Rich Homie Quan at N.C. Central’s Homecoming show in DPAC, which probably remains the worst show I’ve seen to this day.
But my biggest grievance with Young Thug wasn’t even about Young Thug. And it wasn’t even about the three minutes I watched him on stage. It was about almost everyone else, before he came on stage. It was about a number of instances in which an undulating, multi-colored sea of hundreds of white people shouted, with shocking clarity, “NIGGA!” over and over again, in full-throated unison.
It was the most unforgettable manifestation yet of a phenomenon that has boggled my mind for most of my adult life: the obsession of white people with the privilege of saying the N-word.
As a frequenter of hip-hop shows, I don’t exactly clutch my pearls when I hear a white person say the N-word. It happens at almost every single one, and it usually isn’t even subtle. It’s in the song, and white people are rapping along with that song, and rather than dance around it, they do what most white people do when presented with annoying, potentially racist minutiae — plow through it like a BRINKS truck. But Friday night in Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium, even I was taken aback by the sheer scale of the spectacle.
As the DJ ginned up the crowd for the arrival of Thug, he played a number of radio hits, most of them featuring gratuitous uses of the N-word. Among them was Waka Flocka’s “Hard In The Paint,” which he would occasionally cut off to let the audience finish a line, creating cringeworthy moments like:
DJ (voice of Waka Flocka, black person): “I go hard in the — (sound cuts out)
Crowd (95% white people): “— Motha, fucking, paint, NIGGA!”
The first time I heard this, I thought maybe I had only imagined the N-word being so loud. But sure enough, the next time it came around, it was just as loud, and just as crystal clear. For those who’ve never seen a horde of hundreds of white people yelling a variation of “nigger” together, allow me to state the obvious: it’s fucking creepy.
To be clear, the N-word, in any variation, should not be used by white people. Period.
Its historical context as a marker of white power and oppression from the ugliest periods of American history up through the present has left it with more baggage than any other word in the English language, and rightfully so. It has been shouted during beatings, lynchings, cross-burnings and mutilations with glee. It has been yelled during false accusations of raping white women, during searches for runaway slaves, and at slave auctions. Even today, the word is used by poor and prejudicial whites to retain some semblance of status in a world that is rapidly changing, as a reminder that racial bigotry can still transcend economic class: “I may not like my station in life, but at least I’m not a n*****.”
When considered alongside that troubled history, the usage of the N-word among mostly young whites for mere entertainment purposes begins to look not just flippant and misguided, but latently racist. It points to a broader understanding that the word, like everything else, is ours to use if we want, and to discard if we don’t.
That sense of entitlement, otherwise known as White Privilege, is a constant in the white American experience, and Hip-hop listeners are no exception: “I’m paying to see your show, I buy your music, but you’re going to make me self-censor words as I sing along? Fuck that!” Like most of society’s biggest infringements on white people, the unwritten rules around the N-word are a mild inconvenience widely treated with the severity of a lifetime prison sentence.
Others are even more brazen, not basing their N-word privileges on support for the music or their status as an ally, but on simple, colorblind equality: “If they can say it, why can’t I say it? We’re all the same. Don’t make this about race.” This kind of tone-deaf appeal is literally one step below asking why there isn’t a White History Month or reaching out and stroking your black friend’s hair. Here are some handy notes to keep in mind the next time someone tells you we live in a racially equitable society:
The median income of black families is 1/10th that of white families
Black people account for just 13 percent of the U.S. population, but 40 percent of its prisoners and 42 percent of inmates on death row
Black people are 2.5 times more likely to be shot and killed by police than whites
In the not-so-distant past, white people could own black people.
But convenient historical memory loss and racial colorblindness aren’t the only reason for our false sense of entitlement to the N-word — it’s also the pervasive, increasing popularity of the word in everyday American life.
Once upon a time, rappers and their ilk were relegated to a lower rung of American entertainment categorized as “urban” programming. Artists who frequently used the N-word — the Drakes and J Coles of yesterday — still received plenty of attention, but only in certain realms. Now, these artists are the darlings of network late-night television, the rights to their music leased for sports broadcasts and sleek corporate commercials, their lyrics looped endlessly on Top 40 radio. A white American no longer needs to be seeking out black culture or black people to be hearing the N-word (or the empty pocket where it's been edited out) multiple times a day. As much blunt force as it still carries, the N-word has gone mainstream.
We’re already starting to see some of the effects of that shift. Last month, writer and activist Shaun King posted to Twitter an exchange between a group of white students at a Texas high school, in which the topic at hand wasn’t whether or not to say the N-word, but which version of it was most appropriate. The Instagram caption said:
“So… I have a question for all my fans. Everyone contribute even if u wouldn’t normally. Is it ‘nigga’ or ‘nigger’... I think nigga is more respectful and Duke thinks it isn’t supposed to be used as a respectful term. So. Like for nigger comment for nigga. Thanks everyone.”
A string of startlingly ignorant responses followed, including, “Lmao both, if you’re best friends you can say it with a hard r, but if you regularly chill you just say nigga,” and, “I like nigger better.”
In the world of Hip-hop, this new social norm that white people are perfectly comfortable with casually using the N-word has not gone unnoticed. The bizarre reality of black artists regularly having a crowd of white people joyously shout the N-word at them, particularly at large festivals like Hopscotch, is now so ingrained that rappers have begun writing it into their lyrics.
On the Macklemore song, “Need to Know,” Chance The Rapper says, “I remember opening for Ben, wasn’t no liquor at the show/ And now the white girls call me ‘n****’ at my show.” Vince Staples, a rapper from Long Beach, California, who performed at Hopscotch this year, makes the point even more explicitly on his song “Lift Me Up”:
“All these white folks chanting when I ask em, ‘Where my n****s at?’
Goin’ crazy, got me goin’ crazy, I can’t get with that/
Wonder if they know, I know, they won’t go where we kick it at,
Hoe, this shit ain’t Gryffindor, we really killin’, kicking doors”
Widespread use of the N-word, by people of any race, is now the status quo. And like most bad things in the world, it persists not because of the vocal minority of people with deplorable convictions, but the majority who simply follow the crowd. In a pop culture landscape in which the N-word seems ever-present, and a crowd of white people shouting it together is just another day at Coachella, what’s the harm? After all, everyone else is doing it.
Blackness and hip-hop are forever intertwined, but they are not the same thing. Being a part of one does not mean being a part of the other. Through the new mainstream of TV, iTunes, Spotify and Top 40 radio, everyone has been invited under the hip-hop umbrella — but that doesn’t mean that everyone is now a part of the black community.
For all of American history, the N-word has been a brutal, inescapable title that has dogged black Americans from birth until death. It is a word that calls to mind the worst of American history and the basest instincts of human nature.
It is not an object of white fascination to be used whenever we want to turn up.