I’ve always wondered what it’s like to have everything and still want more; or at least this was the thought that occurred to me as I tried to explain to a white acquaintance for perhaps the hundredth time in my life, why non-black individuals cannot ever say the n-word.
Last week, this very same word appeared on a whiteboard on the door of a room inhabited by four women of color. Immediately, all corners of Colgate’s campus erupted in chaos. Feelings of anger, despair and bewilderment were palpable in the air as administrators and students alike scrambled to understand what such an incident meant for the university and its community. But even with all the confusion that abound across the university in the aftermath of yet another racially motivated incident, there remained a considerable population, including myself, who were neither confused nor shocked. And why should I be?
My freshman year, I watched, nearly paralyzed, as a forum about the university’s policy on free speech quickly morphed into a platform for white men to advocate for the allowance of n-word and other hate speech within the classroom in the name of academic freedom. And as I searched for solace in a close friend, I listened, dumbfounded, as he instead informed me matter-of-a-factly that not only were they right but a high school teacher had explained to him that saying the n-word in an academic setting was not offensive. “Censoring was tricky,” he cautioned me, “and prohibiting students from saying the word gave it more power than it deserved.” But I scoffed at such a notion, as I understood that the power was already there and had always been there. I had felt it in my distress as I imagined the allowance of this hate speech within one of Colgate’s predominantly white classrooms.
My sophomore year, as I led an intergroup dialogue to facilitate a conversation about building trust between two distinct groups, I grew inwardly annoyed as a white participant began a line of questioning that challenged the severity of the word. She insisted that the word was simply a synonym for friend and repositioned the blame for its prevalence amongst non-black individuals on black people and their music. “It was a trap,” she explained. How could black people expect their non-black counterparts to delete the word from their vocabulary when they themselves said it both to each other and within their music?
But what my peers had failed to grasp was that although one could argue that the meaning or offensiveness of the word had shifted since its conception by an oppressive institution, it was not their argument to have.
The truth is, we do not and have never inhabited a post-racial society and despite the fact that significant progress has been made towards the enfranchisement of marginialized voices, oppressive forces and ineqituable institutions, like Colgate, still exist. In fact, the legacies of the systems which allowed for the creation of the n-word in the first place still linger across Colgate’s campus, in its predominant whiteness, in its inherently classist nature and in its ever present air of exclusion.
Whenever I hear the n-word from the mouth of a non-black individual, it is never not a violent experience, regardless of whether the word arises within a classroom discussion or within the beer-soaked walls of a frat house. For a non-black individual, there is no risk involved with the word, no history of oppression to reckon with and no fear of what may follow such vitriol. Therefore, I reject the notion that the word could ever mean “friend” or represent an expression of academic freedom in the mouth of a non-black person.
Until one is able to carry with them the oppression and systematic exclusion that the word possesses, I implore them to stop their use of it, whether in jest or in so-called friendly encounters. The use of the n-word by non-black individuals is not a sign of a movement towards a post-racial paradise but rather an act that normalizes and condones the pain of black individuals.
And so while I was left unsurprised by the events of last week, I hope that a collective understanding can form on Colgate’s campus that the n-word is not for everyone.