I was poking around on-line, and I came across this post by someone wanting to start a petition to discourage Korean musicians from using the N-word because a K-Pop* rapper yelled, “Drop that shit, nigga!” during a concert. And then, in American hip-hop news, Schoolboy Q is encouraging white people to use the N-word at his shows, saying, “Yeah, just say it. It’s 2013. I don’t really care.”
And behold the totally schizophrenic attitudes toward the N-word!
I will note that I am white, I was born in 1970, and I grew up in a very racist community. (One of the history teachers in my high school believed–and was open about this belief to the extent of discussing it in front of students, African American as well as white–that all the smart African Americans were killed off during slavery. No, he never got in trouble for it. He was also SPECTACULARLY stupid, but I’m going to assume you knew that already.) The only time I heard the N-word was when it was said by white people about (or, on some very nasty occasions, to) African Americans. There was never any redeeming context: The N-word wasn’t reserved (as it often is in the African American community) for African Americans who were particularly idiotic. It was meant as a term of general disparagement, and it was used out of a belief that African Americans were racially inferior.
Needless to say, it was a word I did not use. Neverevereverever. I was absolutely certain about one thing: Decent human beings did not use the N-word.
That was an attitude that served me well in college (a place, I should note, that was filled with African Americans who were TONS smarter than that history teacher), but after college I moved to New York City.
Hip-hop is HUGE in New York City, a city with a large and well-established African American population. I won’t say that racism does not exist in New York City, but it tends not to affect people’s lives in a material way or meaningfully restrict their opportunities the way it often did where I grew up.
And people used the N-word ALL THE TIME.
Mainly, these were African American people. Depending on their age/enthusiasm for hip-hop, they used it one of two ways: To indicate that a particular person (who was usually African American, but not always) was an idiot, or to indicate that that person (who, again, was usually African American, but not always) was friend or maybe just a down-to-earth individual.
Non-African Americans tended to not use the N-word, but there was one big exception: Hip-hop loving teenagers. Not just white hip-hop loving teenagers, but Latino hip-hop loving teenagers and, yes, even Asian hip-hop loving teenagers.
My God, did they ever use the N-word! But did they ever use it to mean someone was an idiot? No. Did they ever use it to indicate that someone was African American? They certainly did not. They used the N-word to indicate that someone was their friend, or was simply like them–you know, a normal person. Unpretentious. A ’round-the-way person. My N-word.
I also attended a function as a business reporter in which Russell Simmons got on stage, and in front of an audience of business luminaries, proceeded to discuss how well N-words were doing in the world of business, and how the strides N-words were making were really fabulous, and how great it was to see New York City’s N-words doing so well. (At the time he was still married to Kimora Lee, who rather hilariously kept shouting, “Stop cursing!”)
I never stopped being surprised by it (and I still don’t use the N-word), but there it was!
The fact is, in hip-hop circles at least, the N-word has been re-appropriated, much like the word queer has been re-appropriated by gays. I ultimately decided that the fact that people weren’t afraid to use the N-word is a good thing–they don’t see it as a harmful word because they’ve never seen it do harm, and that’s actually pretty wonderful. (And in any case, what was I supposed to do about it? Stop every other random teenager on the street and lecture them about Ye Olden Dayes? Interrupt Russell Fucking Simmons and inform him of the appropriate way to refer to his own race?)
Of course, I don’t think that means it’s OK for people to use the N-word the way it was used when I was growing up. And no, I don’t give a pass if a non-African American is referring to an African American who is a real asshole–why can’t you just call him an asshole and be done with it?
But at this point, am I really going to get my panties in a wad because a Korean rapper uses the N-word?
No. No, I am not.
Blackface and trivializing Malcolm X I can totally see getting upset about. But unless the N-word is being used specifically to express the opinion that people of African heritage are inferior to everyone else, I am not going to worry about it (and then the problem isn’t so much the word as the sentiment). That ship has sailed: The N-word belongs to hip-hop now.
* I do think that a big hunk of the controversy is because this was a K-Pop group, and unlike underground Korean hip-hop (in which the N-word as well as any other objectionable word you might care to hear are used quite often), mainstream K-Pop is usually very G-rated.
ETA: So, it’s, like, three months later, and some very agitated people are JUST NOW figuring out that Zico has (GASP!!!!) USED THE N-WORD!!!
No shit, Sherlock.
Mostly these are his older mixtapes–so, people are getting upset over something that happened in 2009, good luck fixing that one–but he has used it more recently!!! And he’s performed this song live even MORE recently!!!! PREPARE FOR OUTRAGE!!!!!
Right–it’s a cover of a Nicki Minaj rap. Was Zico supposed to . . . go bleep whenever that word came up or something? What about “bitch”? What about “Indian giver”?