A week after the tragic shootings in Charleston, S.C., that took the lives of nine churchgoers at Emanuel AME Church, racism continues to be the center piece of nationwide discussion. The alleged manifesto belonging to Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old shooter, details his “racial awakening” and disturbing views of the black community. Meanwhile, protestors in South Carolina marched to the Statehouse on Saturday (June 20) to demand that the Confederate flag flying above the building be removed.
President Barack Obama also used the N-bomb during a recent podcast interview to make a point that racism is still prevalent in America. “Racism, we are not cured of it. And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say n***er in public,” he said. “That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior.” In another bold move from a high-profile figure, CNN’s Don Lemon recently held a sign of the N-word on-camera.
With recent acts of police brutality and gun violence still dominating headlines, VIBE‘s staff contemplates the weight of the N-word in comparison to the Confederate flag. Should both be banned?
I’ve only been called a n***er one time in my life. It was this year, actually, just a handful of weeks before my 25th birthday. My friend and I were riding the 6 train home from a Jazmine Sullivan concert, recapping the evening’s events. A homeless looking man with stringy white hair hobbled his shriveled body through the crowd and over to us just to say, “Don’t you n***ers know to be quiet?”
Stunned and a bit slow on reflexes, I muttered loudly to my friend, “At least I have somewhere to go home to,” before getting off at my stop. Admittedly, it was a weak response in comparison to the rage I felt in the moments after. I wanted to say much, much more, but I hadn’t had much prep prior to the scenario. I’ve gotten unfunny Oreo and Kool-Aid jokes in jest, but nothing malicious like that. Hearing the cuss word equivalent come from a white mouth shocked me way more than it hurt, because it’s not a term I identify with at all.
In the same token, when I hear black kids and young adults dropping N-bombs loud and proud (but mostly loud) in a crowded subway car of multicultural commuters, the discomfort hits me like a brick crashing through a glass window. I want to look around and read the white faces scanning my own for a reaction or to pass judgement on my people. But instead, embarrassed, I bury my eyes downward and rummage around my purse looking for nothing in particular, desperate to disconnect myself from how freely the word is being used in public. Being used in the presence of both the ones who once spat the title at brown bodies in disgust and those whose ancestors felt the pummel of its blow not too long ago. A shared property.
The ease at which the N-word rolls off the tongue regardless of company simply shouldn’t exist in 2015. We, as people of color, shouldn’t be using it so comfortably, so inclusively with anyone who historically didn’t feel oppressed by it. Even more outrageously, our own getting up on stadium stages and encouraging lily white faces to sing along with us at shows? Who thought that was a good idea? More specifically, who thought that was a progressive idea for us as an American people? An American people who we all KNOW are still struggling to remove resilient strains of hatred from their deeply rooted lineage?
I’m not going to put the blame on the entire black community and say we are responsible for the old school white, southern, Confederate or whatever community’s lack of respect towards people of color. That’s a slap in the face to us all. But how can we be mad or surprised when they use the phrase freely behind our backs and to our faces unashamed (and unchecked!) when some of our own virtually give them the thumbs up to use it under the guise of a friendship title? Or a song lyric? A stamp of coolness? A fashion line? (Hi, Mr. West.) It just doesn’t add up.
I know the discussion at hand is about people being okay with mass usage of “the new N-word” versus proud Southerners flying their Confederate flags freely despite their blatant ties to racism, but I can’t even move forward with it because the former is bothersome on its own. Of course, I don’t think we should casualize (yes, I made that up) the N-word, a symbol of black hatred in its origin. So of course I don’t rhink we should casualize the Confederate flag, a symbol of black hatred in its origin. It’s foolish. It’s insensitive. But more importantly, it’s wrong.
—Stacy-Ann Ellis, Assistant Editor
I’d never seen a white person shout “n***a” with my own eyes until I attended the Bonnaroo music festival last week. And that sh-t pissed me off.
When my people were called “n***er” during the time of the word’s inception, it was obviously no term of endearment, and the way in which we use it now amongst ourselves is not the same. It’s not filled with hate, and it’s not a way to create a sense of inferiority. And that was our choice. We flipped the word and created a new way to reference our counterparts. “N***er” belonged to those hateful people. “N***a” belongs to us. And no, our use of it does not give white people the right to say it – because they were never beaten, spit on and killed over it. Coming from their faces, it’s still an ugly version of historical déjà vu.
Don’t white people get away with breaking enough rules? Don’t they have enough dominion over the happenings in our society? Do they really need to establish a sense of “freedom” by using our goddamn word? Can anything be sectioned off just for us, and they just respect it? Is that really too much to ask? Telling black people to diminish the word “n***a” from their vocabularies, just so that white people don’t use it too, is just another way to communicate that they have ultimate control over the social climate. We certainly had no special treatment then, and we don’t get any now. F**k your word, “n***a.” You know nothing belongs to you in this country.
The key difference between black people saying “n***a” and a redneck’s attitude toward the Confederate flag is that we now want the right to create new symbolism; they just want to reiterate its original message. So when they fly it, wear it, and put it on their license plates, it’s a slap in the face to the people who were victimized in the name of their beloved flag. They are not intending to create a new way of looking at things; they are simply keeping an old outlook alive. “N***er” was transformed into something different, the Confederate flag is still the same old Confederate flag. Just holla at Dylann Roof’s backward-a** manifesto for proof.
I am not naive, however. I understand that it is virtually impossible for rappers to scream the word “n***a” in the catchiest of songs and expect the average hip-hop consumer – a white kid in middle America – not to follow suit as they sing along. We’ve made it cool to be a “n***a.” But white rap fans are just our “n***as” in jest, not our n***as in real life. They’re down to sing our fun songs, but still hit us with the #AllLivesMatter hashtag when black folks are slaughtered like animals. So sing that song in the confines of your mom’s basement, bruh, because proponents of the Confederate flag are really down with their racist cause. White people who scream “n***a” with Jay Z aren’t about to care about our issues with the same vigor.
As the saying goes, “Everybody wanna be a n***a till it’s time to be a n***a.”
—Iyana Robertson, News Editor
I was born in Washington Heights to Dominican parents, and raised between South Bronx and central Florida. In those adolescent years, I never once had to defend my use of the N-word. After all, it was stitched into my vernacular. While my immigrant parents never used it, all of us first generation kids of Quisqueyano descent dapped each other up and used “my n***a” as a term of endearment. As did our next of kin, our African-American and Caribbean black counterparts. More importantly, for years, we’ve reclaimed that word in our poetry, in our spoken word and in our neighborhood cyphers.
It wasn’t until I was living in Tallahassee, Fl. going to school at a historically black university that I was approached by an Omega and asked why I said it when he heard me in earshot. No one had ever asked me that question before. I was 20 and a hippy sophomore in college. “Latinos were also lynched. They were called n***ers too.” My response, I could tell, was not one a thoroughbred Southerner expected to hear. The truth is, while African-American history is severely distorted, the Latino one is often, in parts, completely left out of textbooks.
Fast forward to 2015 and I’m no longer sure anyone – black or brown – should be using it. For years, I had been detached from the predominantly white world. I went to a historically black performing arts high school, attended a historically black university and, today, I’m a writer in hip-hop and Latino culture. When I returned to academia as a 26-year-old grad student at Pratt Institute, I found myself, for the first time in a long time, to be a brown speck in a pool of white. For the first time in my life, I wanted to watch what I said. I wanted to make sure I never uttered the N-word around my melanin-deficient classmates, because I didn’t want to give anyone the incentive to feel like he or she could use it.
Is it my responsibility as a woman of color to set the precedent in an era where so many are now desensitized to the word and its historical context? Should I also stop using it in my ebonics? In my poetry? In cyphers? Do I completely eradicate it forever?
What about the Confederate flag? The confederate flag is a not just “a symbol of Southern pride.” It’s cemented in racism as an emblem of hate and white supremacy. And it was flown all around the places I lived in Florida; on school grounds, hanging over windows, trailing from the tail end of a car. I hate to compare the two, considering the N-word was reclaimed and remixed by the very people it was used against as a form of dehumanization. But isn’t that what’s at stake here—historical context? No matter how we look at it, the two take root in slavery.
I certainly need Confederate flags and merchandise to stop being sold at Walmarts, and for the government to not allow it to be sold as a license plate in any state. I’d love to see the Confederate flag be completely eradicated forever. I’d also love for Kanye West to stop speaking for black people and giving his European friends the “permission” to use “n***a.” But really, what does that all mean when real internal and external change is ultimately the responsibility of the individual?
Even if we “forgave” it, like Emanuel AME Church forgave Dylann Roof for the massacre of nine black bodies, then what? Dylann Roof will likely die the same person he was the night he sprayed a faithful group of disciples in their time of worship. I’m not saying that getting rid of the N-word and the Confederate flag can’t aid in change. I’m saying it has to go beyond that. And until the collective white mass starts to speak out/act out for black problems, nothing will irrevocably shift.
—Marjua Estevez, Viva Editor
In a 1961 interview, author and cultural critic James Baldwin said, “The only thing that really unites all black men everywhere is, as far as I can tell, the fact that white men are on their necks.” Fifty-four years later, Baldwin’s still correct.
But for some reason, some black people believe they’ve “loosened” the pressure by taking ownership of the N-Word, flipping it on its ear and redefining a term that has been rooted in centuries of oppression and bloodshed, and for me, that’s the truest sign of mental slavery.
Yes, as Columbia Associate Professor John McWhorter pointed out in his TIME opinion piece, referring to the word isn’t the same as using the word, and not being able to refer to the word, prohibits honest—maybe even uncomfortable—conversation about race.
But professor, if I may, we’re past that point. Eric Garner was placed in an illegal choke hold and killed for selling loose cigarettes. Dylann Storm Roof walked into a historically black church, killing nine people with the intent to start a race war, and upon arrest, police bought him Burger King, proving white privilege is even given to the guilty, so forgive me if I don’t want them referring to it, saying it or feeling entitled to it anymore than they already do.
The N-Word merits a real life SMH when I hear black kids and teeny boppers freely use it in public places, but then stings when whites feel comfortable enough to use the phrase colloquially among their friends. I don’t care what Jay Z or Kanye West told you, he doesn’t speak on behalf of me or all black people. Watch ya mouth, bruh!
If all black people stopped using the N-Word, I can’t say that all Confederate flags would be taken down. The N-Word is a direct result of the flag, not the flag itself.
But what I am saying is this: be very careful about what you say around me, N-Word included. It won’t be a pretty situation for you.
—Shenequa Golding, Editor
When we first thought of this comparison, I immediately felt that we totally owned the word n***er. As a culture for hip-hop, it has always felt like “our” word. Not to be used by others not down or involved with our culture. It’s a versatile word that is a term of endearment, ridicule, violence and humor. But it carries so much hurt from previous years of oppression that, just like the Confederate flag, represents a stance that a certain group of people want to have a connection to. Yet, the debate on the word and the symbol stops for me when government institutions embrace what can be viewed as an icon for hate, flying high and unmovable at the South Carolina Statehouse.
An artist can have the word “n***er/n***a” emblazoned on their album cover, perform a song with that title on late night talk shows and tour the country doing concerts with thousands of people singing the word and it still will not have the same tint when viewed with those making legislative decisions for a state full of families under a racist flag.
One is a mindstate and one is a mandate. Which is more harmful to the people is debatable. What isn’t debatable is if your laws and regulations are formed in the shadows of oppressive, historically racist supporters (those in the S.C. Statehouse letting the Confederate flag fly) then all the n***er shouting songs in the world don’t compete for social deterioration, as entertainment and laws are not judged the same. Now, the laws and regulations that are upheld and formed in that building are made with a cloak of racist views, based on the Confederate flag they support that waves above their heads everyday. You can ignore entertainment, you can’t ignore laws.
I should be able to say any word, however hateful or degrading, that I want. That’s free speech. But if the law abiding rules I am to follow as a tax-paying citizen are controlled by people that are showing me they hate me and my black skin in the government (allowing the Confederate flag to fly) are allowed to do so, why are we showing them any respect?
There are no swastikas flying from government institutions anywhere Jewish people are paying taxes. It’s not happening. They wouldn’t stand for it. So why should the African-American community?
If a law-abiding citizen wants to wear a Confederate flag, that’s their right. But to have the flag tied to government for this long with so many regulations to protect and support the hateful views and spirit of slave-owning Southerners is beyond ridiculous.
I’m going to still cringe when the N-word pops up in songs and conversation with white people at work and concerts and such… I won’t when I’m around friends and adult family but will when I’m around my kids and songs like “Hot N***a” by Bobby Shmurda comes on. So even in my defense of the word, I have my own issues with it to deal with. Yet, Obama is right that there is a permanent place for the Confederate flag to rest…in a museum and not in the highest place of government praise like capital buildings.
—Datwon Thomas, Editor-in-Chief