Why Non-Black People Can’t Say the N Word

Ni**a. As a young African-Australian woman it’s a word that I have heard many times. And apart from its clear offensiveness, I’ve noticed something strange going on. I call it the Iggy Azalea phenomenon. Non-black Australian children and teenagers are throwing the word around like it’s confetti. It’s clear that a lot of them, though perhaps aware that the word is offensive, see it as just another swear word. They are completely ignorant about its deep history. This word has been watered down to dilute its true meaning and imported from the USA to be consumed by thousands Australian youth.

I remember in year 10 when a boy muttered “Run ni**a run” under his breath as I walked into the classroom. I heard him and his friends laughing but I blocked it out and did not reply to them or complain to any school authorities. However, probably due to my greater level of awareness, my thinning tolerance for ignorance (and also the relative safety of sitting behind a computer screen), recently I have challenged people who have used the word online.

One of my classmates, who is Greek, used the n word in the caption of his Facebook profile picture. “Broke ni**as” only make jokes “ni**a”. These inspiring lyrics were carefully inscribed atop a photo of him with his friend (who was also not black). This raises the question of whether it’s okay for non-black people to say the n word if it’s in a song. The answer is NO. When I confronted him about the use of this word he immediately pushed the blame onto his friend who supposedly came up with the idea. Then he said “Lmao that’s not a foul word. I’ve been called a wog before” (as if “wog” originated from something as horrific as slavery). He finally admitted that he did not believe that “wog” was equal in offensiveness to “ni**a”, but he was unapologetic about his use of the word and told me that I “should ask Australia”.

And sadly, if you did ask Australian teenagers, many would have no clue of the history of the word and why they shouldn’t say it. I realised the severe level of desensitisation after seeing an incredibly ignorant comment written by a young Caucasian woman on Facebook. She said that the ni**a was a positive word created by black people to announce “pride of culture”, similar to the term “Aussie”. Therefore, she believed that it was not offensive for her to use it.

This was part of my reply to her:

The Oxford English Dictionary states that “ni**er” was originally used by people who were not black as a relatively neutral (or even occasionally positive) term, with no specifically hostile intent”. However, by the mid-twentieth century, it was being used in an unmistakably pejorative manner. It became a word used as people black people were thrown onto slave ships, whipped and lynched. It was used to dehumanise black people. Even back when the word ni**er was used “neutrally”, it certainly did not “announce pride of culture”. This is simply because it was not created by black people to describe themselves. It was created by Europeans and forced upon black people.

152 years after the abolishment of slavery in America, some African-Americans have reclaimed the word, changing the ending from an “er” to an “a”. They believe that unlike “ni**er”, the term “ni**a” can be used between black people as a term of endearment. But the key phrase is “BETWEEN BLACK PEOPLE”. When “ni**a” is said by a non-black person it certainly does not feel “endearing” to black people. It carries the horrible meaning that history gave it.

She didn’t take the time to respond and unfortunately it seems that her severe ignorance persists. Since I replied to her, I thought about non-black people who use the n word without an “overtly” racist intent. It became very clear to me that even in these seemingly “innocent” cases, the use of the word is harmful. Even non-black people who claim to be “down” with black people and use the n word in a “friendly” manner can quickly change their tone the minute you do anything to upset them. They can, and do, use the exact same word against you, shouting or muttering it under their breath in anger.

And more importantly, the use of the n word by non-black people is another example of cultural appropriation (e.g. non-black people wearing cornrows) perpetrated by those who love black culture but don’t actually give a damn about black people. These people love black slang and fashion but harbour prejudices against real black people (e.g. would lock their door when a black person walks down the street). They don’t truly care about racism, but for some reason have a weird obsession with using the word “ni**a”. They just see us as a novelty. We’re mere costumes to them. This dehumanisation may seem more subtle than it was in the days of slavery and colonisation. But it’s still there and it has insidious effects. This has been all too clear in the recent instances of police brutality in the United States.

When a racist person shouts the n word as a black person is walking down the street (and yes this does still happen), we don’t care if it ends with an “a” or an “er”. Non-black people do not have the right to say either variant of the n word. However, I do feel a harsher sting when the original racial slur is slung in my face. And this happened very recently. In a Facebook group chat, one of my Indian classmates used the term “nig” (a contraction of the n word) to describe his friend, who was also Indian. I asked him why he would use that term, since it was not only offensive but frankly inaccurate.

He said that since he and his friend were “almost black” they could “say nig”. He presented the so-called argument that “Africa-India relations refers to the historical, political, economic, military, helper and cultural connections between India and the African continent. So we have some connection. Therefore, we can say nig.” His friend was amused and agreed with his “logic”.

This is utterly idiotic and bears some similarities to a different defence I’ve heard from many non-black people. “My girlfriend/boyfriend is black. So, I can use the n word”. It’s sad that they can’t see how nonsensical their argument is. The fact is that THEY are NOT black. They CANNOT be black by association or choice (Sorry Rachel Dolezal).

My classmate then proceeded call me the n word (with the hard “er”). He said “So can I say u are a ni**er”. I had already lost patience for non-black people who used the word “ni**a”. As I stated before, this term, though slung around in every other rap song, causes real issues when placed in non-black hands. But I was even angrier when the situation escalated to the use of the one, the only, the original racial slur – ni**er. I’m not sure if he even knew the difference between the two terms. The ignorance is real.

I asked my Greek classmate why he used the n word and what meaning it had to him. He said “It doesn’t, I don’t know why tbh.” This echoes the thoughts of many non-black Australian teenagers regarding this issue. They don’t even know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. They are just following the crowd like mindless sheep.

It can’t be denied that rap music, predominantly made by black people, has contributed to the popularisation of the n word around the globe. Some may argue that black rappers should stop using the word. Personally, I don’t like using the word because of its horrific history. However, I also respect that black people (particularly African-Americans) have the right to decide how they want to use that word. Some believe that it can be effectively reclaimed and used for empowerment. That topic is up for black people to debate and discuss. But the use of the word ni**a by non-black people will not be. It doesn’t matter how many times they hear it in a rap song. They never have a right to say it. It’s simply unacceptable.

The Dark Truth About Colourism

I have dark skin. But I never truly recognised this during my childhood. Of course I knew that I was black. But I never thought about what shade of black I was. I was completely unware of the insidious phenomenon called colourism. I remember arguing with my friend at the age of nine about who should be Beyoncé in our dress up game. With a smug tone I said, “I look more like her than you do” after which she conceded. My friend was Caucasian, but she had fair skin and straight blonde hair, making her resemble Beyoncé far more than I ever would. But I didn’t notice any of that. I thought that black was black. But it wasn’t that simple.

I slowly began to discover this as I got older. I began to realise the “black” faces I saw in the media were always several shades lighter than mine, unless they were in a UNICEF ad. I remember the excitement I had once when I saw a dark-skinned model in a fashion magazine. That excitement lasted for exactly a second, after which my non-black friend pointed out that she was still lighter than me. I finally understood why my mother looked bothered when my uncle said that his daughter resembled me, except that she was fair skinned. I began to see that for some reason, many people in the African community placed more value on lighter skin.

I finally took a trip back to my motherland, Ghana, last year. It was the first time I had been there since I was nine and I was very excited to see my country and my family. I had an amazing time, but I also saw colourism more clearly than I ever had before. It literally began the moment I stepped out of the airport. As soon as my aunty saw me, she exclaimed that I looked great and compared me to an African-American. She then consoled my younger sister by saying “I’m not saying that you are dark or anything.” I found it bizarre that I was considered to be lighter than my sister. To me we were the exact same shade. And even if I was slightly lighter than her I didn’t know why this should be considered a virtue.

Instances of colourism occurred throughout the month I spent in Ghana. I was so glad to finally meet my cousins, aged 5, 6 and 7. They were incredibly hilarious girls. But the mood darkened when one of them asked a strange question out of the blue: “Who out of us is yellow?”. After selecting her fair mother and sister, the two girls argued over whether their other sister had also been “bestowed” with fairness or whether she should be thrown into the metaphorical pit of darkness. It was decided that she was fair enough to wear the yellow crown. I was saddened that these girls placed such an importance on their skin colour, particularly at such a young age. It’s as if colourism is a congenital disease.

One day I was watching TV with a teenage girl I had become friends with. There was a show in which a so-called prophet supposedly healed the sick and crippled. He had fairer skin than the average Ghanaian but I didn’t think anything of it until my friend said that he had bleached his skin. I was saddened and bewildered that even a middle-aged “prophet” would go to the extent of changing his natural skin colour. Clearly no one was exempt from these colonial-minded beauty standards.  I asked my friend why he would bleach his skin but I already knew the answer before it left her lips in a whisper. “Everyone wants to be fair”.

My mum pointed out that one of my aunties had lighter skin then she used to. Once again, I didn’t notice it until she pointed it out. She said that my aunty had “toned” her skin. I asked her if she meant “bleached” but she kept on insisting the more euphemistic term was the accurate one. It’s sad how the self-hatred and peril of bleaching is rebranded as a normal part of a skincare routine. A few days later when I was going to buy foundation at Accra Mall, my cousin offered to give me one that he had bought for my aunty but she hadn’t used because it was for “very dark skin”.

The fact that Ghana has outlawed skin bleaching does provide me with some hope, but that soon withers once I remember what my experiences have shown me. Many people still value fair skin over its melanin-rich counterpart, and will find a way to use these harmful products. Changing the law is not enough to prevent this horrible phenomenon. We have all have to set an example to change people’s attitudes.

Colourism is simply ridiculous. So the next time someone throws you shade because of your shade, enlighten them by saying they’re not very bright.

African Music Faves March 2017

Lil Kesh – No Fake Love

Medikal – Still Pampee

Skales Ft Tekno – Give Me Love

Strongman Ft. Yaa Pono – Oh Joo

Seyi Shay – Yolo Yolo

D Cryme Ft. Piesie – Dab

Reekado Banks Ft. Falz- Biggy Man

Fuse ODG Ft. Tiwa Savage