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.
What is most frustrating is not that this kind of attitude insulates N-word users from criticism. I am more saddened that the insulation works in the other direction, limiting appreciation and enjoyment of black culture by outsiders. I love hip-hop, and if you haven’t noticed, it contains the N-word in, at times, heavy doses. Since I am white, and understand that there are conflicting views amongst blacks as to how I should relate to the word, I am buffered from fully immersing myself in some of the beautiful art God has produced in and for rap artists and fans.
Let me explain. I feel the Christian responsibility to truly value a diversity of peoples, because God truly values the diversity of peoples He’s filled His earth with. But I find it difficult to navigate the waters of the hip-hop culture. I know that a rap lyric demeaning women is lacking in the good/beautiful/true measure, just as I know that a country song doing the same is. I know that a folk song capturing the unique disposition and language of a certain town is wonderful, but when a rap song does the same, but includes the N-word, is the same true?
Does it take a hit for ugliness that mars the otherwise beautiful structure? Or, is it beautiful for a black listener, but not for a white one? These unanswered questions inhibit me from knowing how I ought to best appreciate the work of fellow image-bearers: Should I hang my head in disappointment each time the word pops up? Should I sing along but censor myself when it arrives? Should I listen to rap music proudly in private, but turn the volume down in my car so as not to offend anyone? Can I sing the word but never speak it?
I don’t want to offend anyone. I also don’t want to be forbidden outright from making any judgments about a particular people’s use of language (and I don’t want to barricade any others from my own ethics). I want the taste of hip-hop music without doing relativistic racial math.
It is my belief that God has the final say on every tribe and tongue, not the wicked agents from any particular people. That the force of lingual, political, vocational, and spiritual oppression is so strong and seems so insurmountable should make us ponder the power of Christ’s blood—if it is supposed to overcome the garbage we have between us, it must be powerful indeed.
I wish the N-word, so ingrained in the form of hip-hop, would be rescued from the relativistic ethic. I wish we would erase the circle and decide whether or not the word is useful for anyone, regardless of the speaker’s ethnicity. If I can’t get my wish until the parousia, I’m sure the holy beats in the new creation will be more than enough to compensate for the wait.