I hope we have all come to realise that the old playground trope, 'Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,' is absolute rubbish. Someone throws a stone at you and it will hurt for that moment then pain will go away. Someone hurls hurtful words are you and that hurt will keep coming back again and again, every time you remember that encounter, as the words slowly sink into your spirit and your soul. Words are weapons. Why else would we describe a hurtful comment as a 'cutting remark' if we weren't aware of the danger in our words?
To quote children's TV, the word of the day is 'nigger' - sorry to those with more delicate sensibilities. I will refer to it as the N word at times, not for fear of the word but simply because I do not need it see it plastered all over my blog post.
I shouldn't need to spell this out but I will. The word nigger is a derogatory word. It stems from the word negro, meaning black or black person, and is steeped in a dark and twisted history of prejudice and oppression in which the black African person has been viewed and treated as sub-human or, to quote the Nazis, an untermensch. It is a word that symbolises centuries of hatred aimed at one racial group. It has been appropriated by black culture, particularly rap culture, in an attempt to reclaim the word but that doesn't mean it's open season. If you understand the full meaning of the word (and you're not racist) you would never want to use it, and if you think it's harmless to use it then you don't understand the true meaning of the word.
I have heard many excuses for non-black people's use of the N word. I heard them say that it only means 'black' so it's not derogatory, I've heard the excuse that rappers and comedians use it, I've heard the excuse that 'my black friends use it', I've heard a plethora of excuses and frankly, when you have to defend your right to use racist terminology I think you have to reevaluate your intentions.
Words are defined by the way in which people have used them historically. So, for argument's sake, maybe the N word wasn't always meant to be derogatory (it was). Maybe in a hundred years time it will no longer be derogatory. But right now, in 2017, the word has a racist history and therefore it is a racist word. There are no two ways of looking at it.
Being the only black girl in most of my classes at school I remember when we would watch movies or read books that would have racial slurs in them and I would feel so uncomfortable despite the word not being aimed specifically at me. (But of course every time the word was said the rest of the class would look at me to gauge my reaction). I've been fortunate in that I've probably had the word thrown at me spitefully less than five times in my life - imagine calling that fortunate - but it still makes me feel beyond uncomfortable to hear it said. Sure, it has spread into popular culture and is now the word of the streetwise. Chris Rock and Chris Tucker use it, Eddie Murphy was always 'nigger this' and 'nigger that', Denzel Washington's character in 'Training Day' uses it frequently... but you'll notice something all these men have in common. They are all black.
I remember in college I met a girl who referred to Chinese food by using an old racist term for Chinese people. When I told her that was offensive she argued with me that it wasn't and that it was just a word everyone in her area used. The girl was white and she wasn't purposefully racist, she just didn't understand how offensive she was being, which is almost as bad. You may not mean to be offensive with your usage of the N word, you may just be having a laugh with friends, but the laugh is had at the expense of black people everywhere. And no, there is no white equivalent. It is not the same as 'cracker' or 'hillbilly' or even 'white trash'. Yes,, these terms are offensive but they are not the same because there are not based on skin tone. They do not deem you worthless because of the colour of your skin. It wasn't that long ago that the N word was used as an adjective to describe something bad. People used to use terms like 'N-lazy' or 'N-dark' and these were not meant as compliments.
If you wouldn't call your black friend then N word then you shouldn't call your white friend by it and, word of advice, don't call your black friend the N word. Can black people use the word? Yes we can. Why can black people use it and non-black people can't? For the same reason why I'm not going to call my gay friend the same thing we call cigarettes in England. (Begins with an F, rhymes with bag). Marginalised peoples use the words that have been used to marginalise them in order to reclaim them and use then ironically. You cannot be ironic if it isn't glaringly obvious that you're using the word in the opposite way than its intent. A black person calling another black person the N word is not offensive because they are essentially offending themselves. It's like throwing a 'yo mama' insult at your sister. She's yo mama too!
Now I know that some racist terms are contextual. For example, lots of my South African friends whom I would refer to as mixed race, call themselves coloured. For South Africans this is apparently not offensive, go with it. For a Brit they might smack you in the face if you call them coloured. Another example is that my French, Spanish speaking friend calls herself a mulatta. It makes me cringe every time she says it but she sees no problem in it. However, the N word is universally unexceptable..
And I know there's this whole fashion of calling people who you like by derogatory terms, like girls calling each other bitches or the old *See you next Tuesday*; call me old fashioned, but I'm not into that.
So one last time, just to be clear, if you are not black in any shape or form, leave the word alone.
P.S. sorry for my frequent use of the word I have advised you not to use and for any other expletives that may have filtered through. There are two reasons for this: 1) I am black and therefore allowed to use the word – sorry, not sorry – and 2) I was torn between using the word and using 'the N word' so I have used both. As much as I resent the word, avoiding it too much almost feels like I'm giving it respect it doesn't deserve. It deserves to die from our vocabulary so that in a hundred years times you'll only be able to find it in historical dictionaries under the heading 'obsolete'.