Many white individuals do not understand why the use of the n-word, even in the absence of the hard “r,” is still considered very offensive and inappropriate by the majority of the black community. At almost every party at Harvard, whoever is managing the music will inevitably play a song that contains the n-word, and at almost every party at Harvard, jubilant, tipsy non-black individuals will loudly yell along to each phrase, failing to omit the n-word when it comes up. The issue is not that most of these students are malicious or blatantly racist. The issue is that most of these students are ignorant to the weight that the word holds, even without the hard “r.” While most college students are aware of the basic history of the n-word, many are unaware that this history still continues. Even in spheres as liberal as college campuses, black individuals occasionally remain the target of this racial slur, a remnant of the long-ago era of slavery.
Over time, black people have taken ownership of the slur, dropping the hard “r” to form a related word that refers to black community, in an effort to counteract the original word’s spiteful history. But that word does not hold the same meaning when said by anybody who is not black. When non-black individuals vocalize the n-word, a reminder of the malice associated with its roots remains, and elicits a strong sense of unease from many black persons who witness its expression. The n-word with no hard “r” (hereafter referred to as the “soft n-word”) should still be reserved for only black individuals, especially because racial prejudice still exists in 2018. (There is some debate as to whether or not anybody—even black people—should casually vocalize the soft n-word, but that is beyond the scope of this article).
For black persons, the soft n-word has become an expression of community, an acknowledgement of shared obstacles, and a piece of black culture. Repeating that word from outside that community is both to appropriate a piece of that culture and to adulterate the meaning of the word. If the soft n-word is used by non-black individuals, it cannot logically signify black brotherhood and sisterhood. Stripped of its new meaning, the term risks regressing into the Antebellum-era definition of centuries ago.
Though intangible, using the soft n-word is not all that different from wearing a cultural garment, such as an African dashiki. Just as it is unacceptable for non-black individuals to casually saunter about wearing African dashikis, it is likewise offensive for non-black persons to say the n-word. Wearing a dashiki is a display of cultural legacy, and it simply can’t hold that same meaning for those who possess a different heritage. When someone who is not of significant African heritage wears a dashiki, it inherently changes the meaning of said display. By casually saying the soft n-word—even by repeating it as a music lyric—a non-black person inherently changes its meaning. These are two textbook cases of cultural appropriation.
It is safe to say that the majority of non-black persons at Harvard who use the soft n-word aren’t blatantly racist. Even if not intended as such, however, the use of this word by non-black individuals is undeniably cultural appropriation. When a famous black rapper includes the soft n-word in his or her music, that does not give non-black listeners a free pass to verbalize it when singing along. Though the word is common in black art, the underlying malicious history of the word has not been washed away. As long as this history remains relevant, the n-word, “hard” or “soft,” should not be used by people who are not black.
—Contributing writer Uzochi P. Nwoko’s column, “Where Rap Meets Race,” explores how predominant motifs in rap impact the black community.
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