The N-word is one of the most loaded words in the English language. Not surprisingly, the word is viewed quite differently by different folks. Some think it will forever be a disgusting word that should never be used. Some think it has been redeemed. Many probably don’t have a developed opinion, but use it because their friends do. And then there are flat-out racists who use it to degrade blacks as a whole, or at least “the bad ones.” Some use it sparingly, some casually.
My goal here is not to argue one way or the other as to the appropriateness of the word. My problem is with a particular attitude: that a black person can use the word with affection to another black person, but it is only okay in this black-to-black context. That the word’s moral value fluctuates depending on the lips it exits from.
This attitude draws a circle around one people (blacks) and codifies a different morality within and without that circle. If you’re in, you can say the word affectionately, and you may even receive the benefit of the doubt if you use it in a negative manner. If you are outside the circle, you better not use it at all, especially not in a derogatory manner. Now, the circle is not arbitrary.
Generally, whites have oppressed blacks in our country's (pre-Civil Rights) history, and the line has been drawn according to the general contours of that history. It’s not as trivial as a boy putting a “KEEP OUT!” sign on his door because his sister spilled soda on his bed that one time. If there were a scale of propriety between peoples using the word, Caucasians would easily rank on the low end.
Once this circle is drawn, those within are insulated from criticism that originates without. Calls for a black insider to refrain from using the N-word by a white outsider will be ignored. And the circle does not only regulate usage of the N-word: once it’s drawn, all language within is nobody else’s business. The call for a black man to refrain from using “bitch” by a white woman is also out of bounds. If we draw circles to justify or condemn one action, we’ll redraw them for another. When Oprah—initially within the circle—took issue with the lyrics of rapper Ludacris, she was dismissed because she wasn’t a hip-hop fan. Her criticism wasn’t answered or rejected on its own; it was evaded by drawing the circle a little tighter.