On the Recent Phenomemon of White Guys Using the N-Word

January 18, 2014 § Leave a comment

A few days ago, I went to the barber.  Had to look natty before the start of the new semester.  It was busy in my barbershop, but it’s always busy, the key is to go early.  So I did.  Didn’t work, there was still a healthy lineup to get to Jose, my barber.  I was one of two white guys in the shop, everyone else was African American.  ESPN was, as always, on, and those of us waiting were watching basketball highlights.  After one particularly “sick” play, the other white guy, who was about twenty, declared about the player who made the sick play, “Yo, that’s my n—-!”  The guy next to me was also the only other guy over the age of 40 in there.  He looked like he wanted to tear this kid’s head off.  And so I was put in that uncomfortable position; I called the kid on the term.  He was flummoxed that it was racist.  And embarrassed.

The easy thing to do is to question his mental competency.  But I think it’s more complicated than that.  He was around 20 years old and, at least so he claimed, had no idea that the N-word is racist.  I began telling him the history of the word, how it derives from the Spanish, “negro,” which simply means “black,” which then got perverted by the English, as both colonisers and slave traders, and came to have a derogatory meaning by the 19th century.  He claimed he had no idea.

I’ve had this conversation with some of my students, particularly back in Montréal, in the affluent West Island suburbs of the city.  Some of these kids, all of them white, thought it completely acceptable to call each other by that word.  I was stunned then, I remain stunned today.

It is also worth pointing out that they are not actually using the word in a pejorative sense, they are not using it to put someone down, or calling someone a name.  They are simply referring to each other.  In the case of the kid in the barbership, he was using the term in the sense that someone else might say, “Yo, that’s my man!”.  And the kids back in Montréal were using the term in the way others would say, “Yo, my man!”.  But that doesn’t make their usage of the word any less offensive or disturbing.

I recently read an explanation for this phenomenon, which said it’s the result of hip hop culture, because rappers throw the word around amongst themselves, blah blah blah.  I don’t buy it.  I grew up listening to hip hop, I bought my first rap album in 1984 (It was Run-DMC’s début album, Run-DMC, if you’re wondering).  To this day, hip hop remains one of my favourite, if not my favourite, music form.  And yet, I know that word is wrong.  So what is it that leads young white men (I have never heard a young white woman use the term) think it’s acceptable to drop the N-word?  I honestly don’t know.

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