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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

September 23, 2019   |   Ithaca, NY

ColumnsInto Identity

Who gets to say the N-word

Sophomore Khush Khemlani, an Ithaca College student, posted a video on her Snapchat account where she describes herself as “a f—— n—er” after receiving a spray tan. A screen-recorded video of the Snapchat story was uploaded to Twitter where it drew strong condemnation from the college community. Kudos to college administrators for hosting a series of events to discuss the history of this racial slur and its enormous impact on the African-American community.

When I first saw the video, I just sighed and rolled my eyes. This isn’t the first — and certainly won’t be the last — time I’ve heard a nonblack person uttering the N-word in a so-called “progressive” environment. As many black students can attest, hearing a racial slur on this campus isn’t new. This incident went viral, and it does pose some tricky questions.

This student is a person of color. She said n—er and not n—a. Although both words shouldn’t come out of her mouth, the word n—er undoubtedly carries a distinct sting because of its connection to slavery and racial oppression. The college decided not to punish Khemlani, presumably on free speech grounds.

I attended last week’s lecture and panel discussion on the N-word and its history. The word n—er has been utilized as a racial slur against African-Americans since 1786, according to Sean Eversley Bradwell, director of the Center for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Social Change (IDEAS). The term n—a came about in the late 1970s from black comedians and was further popularized by rap and hip-hop artists like Tupac Shakur, who argued that the word n—a can function as a term of affection.

At the panel discussion, some black people argued that both words are hideous and should disappear from our vocabulary because of its ties to white oppression. It shouldn’t be spelled out or even uttered. When black people, especially music artists, use n—a, it normalizes the word to the point where nonblack folks feel perfectly comfortable saying it. If black artists can repeatedly say n—a in a song, why can’t white folks say it?  

I understand and respect the sensibilities of black people who wish for the complete extinction of the N-word and its derivatives. It carries a lot of power and can elicit a visceral reaction. From my perspective, I think it’s possible to reclaim a term of racial hatred and use it to convey other meanings. After all, the significance of a particular word is contingent on who says it, in what context and for what reason. In other words, it’s possible to take a word meant to disempower black folks and retool it as a form of empowerment.

With that being said, I will probably never be comfortable with nonblack usages of n—a and especially n—er, even if they’re merely referring to it and not using it. I understand the crucial differences between the two, but it still feels awkward hearing it from a nonblack person even if it’s not for malicious reasons. In any event, if you’re not black, don’t use the N word.