Language Matters: Can White People Say The “N” Word?

It’s a question that has been asked many times before:  Can white people ever say “n*gga”?

One writer (who is Black, for the record) says yes — but only in rap lyrics.  (, 19 Sept 2011)

Sometimes, language is all about context, and the same words uttered by one person in one situation may have a completely different meaning when spoken by someone else.  This is especially true when it comes to derogatory or taboo words about race.

The “N” word has a long and sordid history in the United States, and for it to leave the lips of a white person is to trigger the collective memory of slavery and generations of institutionalized racism in this country that still hasn’t fully faded from our society.

The “N” word has been reclaimed by the community that it originally insulted, but in the altered form of “n*gga.”  However, it is only socially acceptable for the group doing the reclaiming to use the reclaimed word.  Someone outside that group using the word constitutes a significant breach of etiquette.

If you listen to hip hop or rap at all, you know that the word has been enthusiastically and widely used in rap lyrics.  If you’re a white person, and you’re singing along, what do you do when the word comes up?

Don't worry, your dog won't tell anyone.

For example, rappers Jay-Z and Kanye West wrote a hit song called “N*ggas in Paris,” which rap fans of all races love, but the title can be problematic for white people.

As Brittany Lewis says in the article cited above, “When someone asks a white person what their favorite song is on Watch The Throne, what are they supposed to say?  Is their response supposed to be ‘Bleep In Paris,’ ‘Brothas In Paris,’ or ‘*Pause* In Paris?’”

SO while the word is ordinarily full of racist and insulting overtones, there are specific instances when it is okay to use — like when quoting the words to a song.

That doesn’t mean this translates to everyday life, however.

“But in the same breath, I will say to white people and people of other races to not address me as ‘Your n*gga’ or greet me ‘What up my n*gga?’ That is a no go,” says Lewis.

"What did you just call me?" "Oh, uh... I didn't, I mean... yeah, sorry."

The question remains: can white people use the “N” word?

Again, it’s all about context.  Most of the time, I think the answer still stands at a solid “no,” but if you’re rapping along with your favorite song and it’s obvious you’re not trying to insult anyone, well, maybe you can get away with that.

What are some other words that are only acceptable in certain situations or contexts, or when said by specific people?  Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

Study all the hidden words in this post in VocabNetwork’s N Word: blog LM studylist!

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