Hearing the “N-Word” in Europe, Time to end the word
I am the proudest of being black. Born in Nigeria, conditioned in the United States, and now living in Spain. My skin color has been a rich experience of unity, challenge and triumph. But it is time I stop making excuses.
I love it in Spain, but I am tired of explaining why they can’t use the “N” word when we say it all the time.
Right off the bat, I want you to know that this article is not an indictment of Spaniards or other white Europeans that use the “N” Word. Rather, I question why the word continues to exist at all.
I have heard all the excuses, accepted them, but after flying out of the United States only to be followed by the word, I felt compelled to address some points that travel has forced me to revisit.
The Spanish Relationship to the “N”-Word
“Black people have always been America’s wilderness in search of a promised land.”
- Cornel West
In order to fit this discussion into better context, you ought to know that Spaniards have their own version of the N-word, negrata. I have never heard anyone use that term to refer to me.
Ours on the other hand, has been flung at me on a few occasions. It means nothing to them and it’s our fault they feel so comfortable with a word that has no place in society.
It is crazy. I try to tell my white friends why the word is deplorable and some feel like they have the perfect comeback. On two separate occasions, I have been sent a clip of Louis C.K’s rationale. Like the fact that a comedian has thought through an argument is enough to convince me of embracing the word.
Go ahead, let me hear it, how we own the word now. Start regurgitating the idea that the word is a term of endearment. Write down all your justifications. Hopefully, by the end of this article, you question if any of your reasons are worth it.
In Europe, all that rage I thought I would feel if I ever heard the “N” word from a white person, I couldn’t direct anywhere. I was most frustrated by people who look like me, those who are probably switched off by now, ready to call me an “uncle-Tom.” Go ahead, I am not afraid of that term anymore.
What the “N” word means to me?
“In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.”
― Toni Morrison
My girlfriend, Kristina, is from Spain. She doesn’t understand why I get so angry when I hear the word. She asked once, “what does that word mean? Why are you so against it? You used to use it didn’t you?”
To her and to many others, the word is just an exclamation point of a funny joke, a catchphrase, slang, or just a way of talking.
In reality, it is the last word hundreds of thousands of black people heard before they were kidnapped, raped, beaten, or murdered.
Flesh and blood begged for their lives but weren’t granted breath because some people were brainwashed into believing that innocent human beings were “N” words. Imagine all the endless tortures. Mothers weeping to keep their children, but still, some tore babies from nurturing arms. To the aggressors, “N” words were objects. Still are.
On the journey to the United States after some shopping or kidnapping, if the waters showed any signs of turbulence, the ship had to be kept afloat. It couldn’t be too heavy. Many Africans were thrown overboard by panicking sailors. “N” words were less valuable than horses.
But I am supposed to believe that since the ownership of the word has changed hands, history no longer partakes in meaning. What other word is cleansed of its history in order to reconstruct its significance?
And if the “N” must be honored as the first of its kind worthy of redemption and a new life, what has it contributed to society? I can find no other example where such an exception has been made to this degree. Everywhere else, I see offensive words classified as offensive words.
But black people really enjoy fighting for the presence of this word.
Who really gets to dictate the meaning of a word. A tiny minority who claim it as a term of endearment or a silent majority who feel uncomfortable because of everything the word represents?
It gets messy.
We go as far as to create sub-categorical definitions for the word. The ending “-ER”, means hate. The ending “-A” means love. And the ending “-A “can only be used by a certain group, except if you have been granted implicit permission by authority (friends that happen to be black). Why all the effort? Seems like a lot of scheming for one word.
There is too much thinking that has to be done for something so horrid. Let’s wash away all the filth of our past, start anew with a fresh perspective of self that we create for ourselves. “N” words were never meant to accomplish anything. We are.
When I hear the word in Spain
“The“b” word and the “n” word are like poison, whether you take poison from a vial or pour it into Bavarian crystal, it is still poison.”
― Maya Angelou
The last time I was called the “N” word in Spain was like the two times before it. I was at a nightclub called Aqua in Madrid. A few partygoers spotted me from afar. By the looks of it, they were in their twenties, just trying to be cool. There was hip hop blasting in the background and one of them starts yelling, “my “N” word, my “N” word.”
It still catches me off guard because I am thousands of miles away from home.
They are excited, screaming to get my attention, calling me the “N” word around hundreds of other white people. One of them opens up, speaking Spanish, drunk. I tell him I don’t understand, that I am from the United States and he explodes, using the word even more as if auditioning for a rap video.
There was no malice in his heart, it was the exact opposite. As a caucasian, he was trying to establish some sort of camaraderie. He assumed that he had found the key to making a new black friend, something I would understand. The irony. To him that was they way to show a black man love, he was welcoming me more than anything,
“My “N”Word, my “N”word,” he kept saying. It is an icebreaker now.
Some of his friends were asking me about jay Z and 50 cent. Some were trying to take selfies with me. The guy using the “N” word called his girlfriend, told me she won’t believe that he was speaking to me. They were clearly not racists, the extreme opposite.
How is it possible that I felt ashamed?
Because I did nothing to stop him. I took the attention and smiled. But what could I do? It was just me, and the songs in the background that continued to echo the same word I wished he would stop using.
To many abroad, the word really is just a term of endearment. And some may argue that the spirit in which it is expressed is what matters the most. Still, if these people were to walk around parts of New York screaming that word, in good spirits, not everyone would just stand around. Does the word adopt additional rules because it is no longer at home?
Who is to blame?
You’re either part of the solution or part of the problem.
What Americans may not realize is the strong influence of our culture all around the world. Most of us take pride in our country, but till you leave it, you cannot fathom the extent and reach of United States culture.
I have been in a classroom full of 8-year-old Spaniards who can’t speak English but can recite every lyric to a Maroon 5 song verbatim.
Maroon 5 in one thing. Hip hop is an entirely different beast. It is everywhere. I remember being in a small bar in Zadar. It played mostly traditional Croatian music, but for the few moments when the DJ decided to make things interesting, he chose hip hop. And people sang along.
Hip hop is the world’s sound now. And Caucasians abroad aren’t necessarily pausing for those parts that are not supposed to be repeated. They just sing and enjoy, as they should. They have enough going on in their country with their own people. Why should they have to learn the history behind the most repeated words in their favorite songs? Besides, it sounds cool.
I started this piece blaming hip hop for the spread of the word. Hip-hop plays a significant role in dispersing the term but this is everyone’s problem, all those in the United states that create a space where the word can continue living.
I blame a culture and a people that have chosen the ease of excuses rather than the challenge of education and evolution. We all bear the burden alike, myself included.
Plenty of liberal whites, stand by the side of the conversation, dipping a toe in very gingerly every now and then. They try to be as politically correct as possible, and God bless them, they mean well.
I have heard white radio hosts on urban radio stations basically wash their hands of the word, thinking that they are empowering the less privileged black man by essentially supporting their use of the word.
When I hear a white person say, “I have no problem with it. They can use it if they want.”
What I hear is, the word is no longer my responsibility. Whites are sort of absolved of a burden to the word. They get to say, “it is their word now.” But does shifting authority over of a word remove its history? We have been left to manage an effect that isn’t studied, a filth that was not created by us. Why do we bask in it?
Those in the Jewish community refer to themselves as the chosen ones, they stick together. Look how far they have come, subjugated for centuries. And you want to keep telling me it is just a word.
Why don’t good-hearted whites advise that we refer to ourselves as kings and queens, as opposed to “N” words? Because they are afraid of the response.
They don’t want to be despised for being controversial on a sensitive topic. If you cannot be honest, then stay out of the conversation entirely, that is acceptable too. Stop pandering. Instead, fight for a black child to continue hearing a word that says, “you are going to do amazing things in this world.”
You wouldn’t refer to your white friends with words of the same demeaning history or gravity. If you would so, then the “N” word would not be so singular a phenomenon in society.
When I was in Berlin, Germany, I didn’t speak to a German that thought, “let the Jews handle it, let them fix what we did.”
There had been a concentrated effort to address ALL, and I mean ALL, the wrongs of the German people during the nazi era, so many extensive measures to assure that such divisive forms of thinking no longer reared their heads, in any form.
But blacks are still experiencing humanity’s most creative holocaust. That which is well masked. That which gives a bit to a few while sending so many others to prisons, as it leaves millions in abysmal conditions.
Instead of fixing the black concept of self, reexamining the way we refer to and treat each other, we just keep settling for excuses.
Hip Hop and the glamorization of urban street life has confused us into making an exception that defies logic. I can feel John Lynch´s smirk from his grave. He promised, 1000 years of subjugation, and is glad to have underestimated. We ought to be ashamed that the word is in Africa now, completely absent of context.
We stop being “N” words, once we stop referring to ourselves as “N” words. A change easier said than done, like all things worth having.
“Oprah, for instance, still can’t get past the n-word issue (or the nigga issue, with all apologies to Ms. Winfrey). I can respect her position. To her, it’s a matter of acknowledging the deep and painful history of the word. To me, it’s just a word, a word whose power is owned by the user and his or her intention.”
A show of affection? Well, guess what? I am sure a few “massas” fondly referred to some of their preferred slaves as “N” words. I don’t care about the feeling in which you are saying it. And I am not making an exception because you are black. You can do better.
I don’t get when people tell me that black people have reclaimed the “N” word, that it has been repurposed into an endearing greeting.
Some have tried to frame this defense in the context of history. I shrug.
I have been told that since the word was used to degrade blacks in the past, blacks responded by using it as a show affection. If that is true, then we attempted an experiment and it failed, miserably. It did not help. Saying the word changed nothing. Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr and many like them, still had to fight a bloody battle for an inch.
It is more likely that our self-worth was so lowered on a massive scale that nurture was able to dupe us into embracing the word.
It is the responsibility of society to condition its children through traditions and expectations. Through the lack of education, opportunities, and freedoms, we began to echo what we heard, our reality. We went with the flow, despite the murky waters. Because we had no choice.
Don’t tell me that the word was intentionally used as a sign of love and respect, it was used because little black children heard the word all day long. They grew up with it and passed it on. It just stuck, because black people added a swagger to it, and made it sound cool. But I am sure we can do that we just about any word if we tried.
I find myself asking, why can’t we quit one word but expect much more from a large group that has long oppressed us? We make the excuse that the word is a part of how we were raised, how we think and talk. But then we turn around and expect a racist to give up a poisonous lineage after watching 12 Years a Slave.
What else have they told me?
I hear the word has rules now. It is safe.
Do you really think your white best friend that skips over that word when you are singing those songs in public is doing the same thing when he is alone? I am sure some are but let’s be real, the song loses some potency without that word. And hip hop is all about authenticity right? You have to assume Caucasians want to feel the passion too.
And why can’t they follow along to every lyric? If the “-A” version of the word means love then why can’t hip hop loving whites use it as they sing along. They love our music and stories enough to spend money on them, they buy merchandise and mimic our style. I would argue that many of them love us, more than we love ourselves. So why can’t they use the word? Because it still really means something else? Hmm.
If they can’t use the “N” word, we shouldn’t either. That is called moving forward as a people together.
Don’t call it reparations that black person can continue to use the word because it doesn’t feel like a part of a gift bag when you are across the Atlantic and drunk white kids are yelling it at you. Where is my moral victory then? What am I claiming?
I have heard the hip hop artist argument too, that it is just self-expression.
In interviews, rappers say, “this is just how we talk. We are artists and we are reflecting life in the hood. Keeping it real.” Keeping it real has consequences and someone has to start owning up to them. Why not admit that as creatives, you have found a sound that makes money and you would rather not lose a dollar? Plus it is tough to be creative in the hip-hop world while being uplifting and popular. It is just too much. Easier to get rich.
Thanks to hip hop, you really can’t say the word belongs to anyone. It is not our word. The word is popular culture.
And specifically to Jay Z’s defense of the word, its is catchy to say that removing the word does not remove the intentions of those that hate black people. It sounds smart. But change is not a one-way street. It is a give and take. It is our responsibility to carry ourselves with dignity so that those who hate us will find no evidence of those things they have been convinced of. We can inspire the change we wish to see in others.
And as for censorship, come on. This is not a matter of free speech, it is a matter of hate, history, pain and a willingness to do something difficult. Grow.
The truth of the matter is that we keep on with the word because we are lazy. It is not an easy word to give up. Plus we do not have a substitute with the same flavor. A flavor that only exist because of its exclusivity. An exclusivity only carved out by a grotesque history. A history that continues today. Everything we say the word isn’t anymore is what makes it what it is today.
Why can’t we just start calling each other “brother”? Or even “buddy”? I will take “buddy.” But you dismiss it because it sounds silly. You can’t see it happening. It isn’t raw enough. Is that how we prefer our black men and women? Raw and hardened?
Brother doesn’t have an edge to it either. You sound boring, most people would probably assume you just joined the Nation of Islam. But think of that oh so subtle effect if every black man was more inclined to refer to his kin as “brother.” If I spend my whole life calling you brother, it would hurt a bit more to sell drugs to your mother. Not that our skin color dooms us to one fate.
We ought to make small changes together. If enough people start rethinking the status quo, we just might look for other alternatives in our communities. We just might.
Again, look at what the Jewish community has done correctly, the unity among them. I envy it, because it is practical, resolute and built to overcome.
I wish the same togetherness, so badly, for all those who look like me. Too bad Judaism is a religion, not a race. We face a challenge.
It doesn’t matter anyway. Image seems to be more important to us. Admit it. Don’t piss on my face and tell me it is raining. You don’t really believe that we have taken the power from the word. There is just something rebellious and bad-ass about the word.
“Oh but really, I care more about how the person days it, more than anything,” you insist. No. You know it has a ring to it and it gives you an identity to connect with. Let’s build a better identity.
And for those who insist on reminding me that it is just a word. I am very near my target word count for this article. I would love to go Wittgenstein on you right now, and maybe I will one day. But for now, it is not just a word. If it is, open up a dictionary, jump in for another.
I do not care how versed you are in the subtleties of the “N” word, you would never want to bring it up in a professional setting. As a black person you can feel the box you will immediately be placed in if the word were to slip out of your mouth.
When the moment matters, you are careful to avoid the term. And you know it is not just a matter of politeness. You are black, no one will judge you, it is supposed to be your word now. But you don’t want to be in that box. You want to be taken seriously.
You won´t slip in a job interview. And you would pin that word back in speaking to anyone whose intellect you respect, especially if you have academic ambitions. Because the word has no place in dignified and respectable society. So why don’t we act as those that deserve to be taken seriously all the time? We can start from our vocabulary.
Not even in the violent streets of Chicago or the rest of urban America alike should this word be permitted. These are the places where we especially need a new perspective on black lives. Brothers don’t kill each other, “N” words do. It is in the history of the word.
The animalism of it has not been lost. “N” words were hunted for sport.
In the United States of America, it was a community activity to scoop up a random passerby in order to watch him hang. Random except for the variable of his skin color. Chosen to die for no just reason.
The horror. all because there was nothing else to do that day.
“Die “N” word,die,” I imagine people would chant. What bothers me the most is that little white children were brought to watch. I imagine them laughing with friends in the background, not really paying attention because it was just another “N” word lynching.
Just another. And that devaluation of a human life continues today. Those same lessons that made a racist in the past are still being taught today.
I am not ignoring the layered dimensions of the black dilemma, boiling it all down to one word, but it is better to let that word die with the worst of our history. Let’s move on.
“The battles that count aren’t the ones for gold medals. The struggles within yourself — the invisible, inevitable battles inside all of us — that’s where it’s at.”
I do not subscribe to the philosophy that our problems are for others to solve. Our skin color is our responsibility, along everything that comes with it.
The “N” word did not invent racism but is it doing anything for the side that is trying to end it?
To uplift each other, we must respect each other. Not just our present, but our past as well. The “N” word participated in the evil construct of racism when blacks were first brought to the United States as slaves. Respect starts with dealing with all the truths and effects of our oppression. In our progress, we cannot continue making a bunch of excuses for its residue. The “N” word is a stain and all I see are people lining up to polish it.
As blacks, we have to appreciate that the stories that we tell ourselves back home, our excuses, do not travel with us when we leave. Only the things that we broadcast.
Figuring out how to stop strangers from calling you the “N” word, even after you have left the United States, is a challenge that begins at home. I can’t in good conscience become upset at Europeans who use the “N”word especially when they have no inkling about the pain of it. It comes to them in the form of entertainment.
There are those that may argue that the “N” word is not big enough problem. But it is. Especially since its resolution are education, unity, and a mental shift. Keys towards addressing most problems in black society.
It is time we became more engaged, making small changes every day. Let us start with the things we tell each other, the aspirations we implant and the hopes that we live for.
From a subconscious level, let us be a people that take ourselves and each other seriously. All we are lacking is that impetus, a strength that will only come from the things we hear about ourselves every day.
The “N” word is disturbing. The “N” word has a gross history. The “N” word is not deserving of our creative excuses.
The “N” word has got to go.
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