“N***as in Paris” is my favorite song. I can’t count all the angst-filled drives to and from high school filled with angry rapping — I don’t think you can call what I do rapping, but regardless — and yelling explicit lyrics at the top of my lungs, windows down, hitting the steering wheel. And whenever the N-word would pop up, I’d skip it. It was natural to me, like it didn’t even appear. To me, it is the word that must not be uttered, no matter the context.
It wasn’t until my junior year in high school when one of my friends questioned my silence.
“You actually can say it,” she whispered, kind of low like she’d discovered the coolest secret. “Like … you’re black and stuff. So like … what’s stopping you?”
That was the first time I realized that it must seem like my appearance gave me a right. I had access to this word, this five- (or six-) letter word that represents years of oppression, slavery and pain. I can sing it in songs and use it in conversations when so many of my friends can’t. Why wasn’t I capitalizing on my gift?
Mainly because I have no claim to the term — growing up, my parents were never called the N-word, never forced to use colored water fountains, never pushed into worse schools or worse school districts, never spat at for their kinky hair, their chocolate colored skin, their black being. Neither were their parents or their parents’ parents. My family is from Nigeria. The country has its own set of problems that I could easily get into but won’t, but white-on-black racism isn’t one of them. Growing up in America has been hard in that sense — the racism I have had to deal with does not resemble my parents’ struggles growing up. I feel like I’ve been dropped in the middle of a firing zone, dodging bullets that are centuries old. I feel like I’m fighting for an identity that doesn’t belong to me. I feel like in this country, the color of my skin carries a tax that my family did not prepare me for. I feel like I’m assumed to be an African-American.
But I’m not. So to me, it’s not my word to use. Don’t get me wrong, I understand why African-Americans and even other Africans use the word — or I have my own personal theories. Their identity has been oppressed since the beginning of their world. They have the right to take back this one word. It’s theirs to sing in songs, to yell out to their friends, to write in blog posts, to scream out to the world. They have earned the right. Same with other Africans. Having grown up in this country, they have dealt with racism, microaggressions, full-out aggressions, discrimination, pain and hurt based on their skin color. Why shouldn’t they be able to say the word?
Maybe I don’t say it because I’m not sure who I’m saying it to. I grew up in an almost entirely white neighborhood — my high school was less than 5 percent black people. For most of my friends, I was the only black person they knew. If I used it, maybe they would think it’s okay — that the blend of letters, the two syllables, were encouraged, cool even. I don’t think my high school friends are stupid or knowingly racist in any way. But who exactly would I be singing with? I don’t think calling a group of blonde girls my n***as would be satisfying in anyway. Being able to say the word isn’t a privilege. It’s a consequence of years of oppression that I try not to take lightly.
No white person should be saying the word — I think most black people would agree. There’s no exception. Songs aren’t an excuse, and the thought of constant use in everyday speech is honestly appalling. But I find it almost impossible to enforce when so much of pop culture is founded in the word. I’ve met so many white people that, before they met me, didn’t find issue in belting the word when It came up on the radio. No one had ever told them any different, and according to them it was like … in the song … like the song writer did put it in …why should they have to censor themselves? It’s just a song. Of course, in response to this, I would go on and on about the oppression it represents, the pain it causes in the black community and why it sets the movement back 20 years. But it is there, and it is in almost every popular rap/trap song. How can I force people to care when the word is everywhere?
I can’t and I probably shouldn’t have to — but that’s another issue in it of itself. Back to the lyrical masterpiece that is “N***as in Paris.” Great song, bumping beat, classic hit. But shit title.
Contact Natachi Onwuamaegbu at natachi ‘at’ stanford.edu.