So two days ago I sent this text to a friend of mine: “what are your thoughts on white people saying the N word in the context of singing a song?”
She needed clarification before she could answer this question: “as in, a white person wrote the song with that word in it, or a black person wrote the song?”
I meant the latter. I’ve been listening to a couple of rappers lately who say the N word a lot in their music, and I have this sometimes impressive but sometimes annoying habit of picking up all the words to a song very quickly. I wasn’t sure how I should be singing along to these songs in my car.
I know. I’m alone in my car. No one can hear me. I would never say that word outside of the context of singing along to a song, let alone say it and mean it as an insult. This is probably one of those times when people will accuse me of being too neurotic about these things. I will likely be thought of as more neurotic when I tell you that I prefaced the question with an apology for asking, because I felt it wasn’t entirely fair. This friend is mixed race (half black, half white), you see, and I wanted her opinion as a thoughtful person who cares about words, but I also wanted her opinion as a person of colour. But in asking, I also wanted to remind myself that no one person is in a position to represent the feelings of an entire cultural group. It’s not her job to answer all of my questions on race relations, and it’s also easy to forget that getting her personal opinion on the matter is not the same as having a definitive answer.
Yes, I easily get tied up in knots. But in my defence, it has taken me a lot longer to write this out than it did to think about it in the moment, so it’s not as if I spent half the day obsessing over the two texts I sent to her. But these are the things that swirl around in my head much of the time. I think about words a lot. I think about intentions a lot. I think about what both of those things mean in the context of my friendships and also the larger world. A lot.
I also think about how superficial many of these things can be, though, and how important it is not to get too bogged down in minutiae. I also know that people — especially white people — can get a little overzealous about the issue, probably because they’re afraid of offending people. I will never forget, for example, one time when I said someone was Chinese. One of my students swiftly corrected me to tell me the person I was referring to was Asian. Which, yes, she is — but she is also Chinese. In the sense that her parents are Chinese, she adheres to Chinese religious practices, and she’s from China.
Now, I do know that the word “Chinese” is sometimes incorrectly used as a shorthand for anyone from south-east Asia, but I’m not sure the situation warranted such a swift and sure correction. In this case, it was particularly funny, considering the person I was talking about literally is Chinese, but even if it had been a misstep I’m not sure publicly challenging a well-intentioned person for using a potentially questionable turn of phrase would have been the most useful thing to do. It’s because of moments like this that the whole debate around language doesn’t always get taken very seriously.
Last night I had a conversation with my father and my sister on words that boiled down to this: language is powerful, but it is powerful because it holds the weight that we give it. That’s not to say, of course, that we can individually decide what words mean and how they can be used, but rather that we need to recognize that certain words often represent larger and more serious issues. That means these words need to be paid much mind, but we also need to acknowledge that these words are not the issue in and of themselves.
The N word itself as a word does not hold some special magic weight, but that word’s history and use means that saying it invokes a whole world of prejudice, power, and protest that must be acknowledged. And depending on who says it and how, it invokes different things. So when I listen to Jidenna alone in my car, knowing from watching interviews with him how strongly he feels about white people using that word, I’m not sure if I’m being sensitive or overly scrupulous when this whole philosophical quandary comes up in my head with the first line of “Long Live the Chief”: “Ni***s fighting over rings . . .”
The only real conclusion I have been able to draw is this: if I need to choose between defending my right to use a particular word and hurting someone with the use of that word, I’ll err on the side of not hurting someone. We may have freedom of expression in Canada, but I refuse to be obsessed with my right to offend people.
Ward is a Saskatoon-based freelance writer who spends her days (and most nights) working at a small Catholic college. Her less eloquent thoughts can be found at www.twitter.com/newsetofstrings