Ta-Nehisi Coates explains why white people can’t say the N-word

It’s a question that comes up again and again in discussions of race: Why can’t white people use the n-word, even as many black people use it, particularly in rap songs and other media?

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a writer at the Atlantic and author of We Were Eight Years in Power, has perhaps the best explanation I have ever heard on the topic, given during an event last month at Evanston Township High School in Illinois.

Coates first pointed out that it is normal in our culture for some people or groups to use certain words that others can’t. For example, his wife calls him “honey”; it would not be acceptable, he said, for strange women to do the same. Similarly, his dad was known by his family back home as Billy — but it would be awkward for Coates to try to use that nickname for his father.

“That’s because the relationship between myself and my dad is not the same as the relationship between my dad and his mother and his sisters who he grew up with,” Coates said. “We understand that.”

The same concept applies to different groups and their words. “My wife, with her girl friend, will use the word ‘bitch,’” Coates said. “I do not join in. You know what I’m saying? I don’t do that. I don’t do that. And perhaps more importantly, I don’t have a desire to do it.”

Coates pointed to another example — of a white friend who used to have a cabin in upstate New York that he called “the white trash cabin.” “I would never refer to that cabin” in that way, Coates said. “I would never tell him, ‘I’m coming to your white trash cabin.’”

Coates added, “The question one must ask is why so many white people have difficulty extending things that are basic laws of how human beings interact to black people.”

He gave a potential answer: “When you’re white in this country, you’re taught that everything belongs to you. You think you have a right to everything. … You’re conditioned this way. It’s not because your hair is a texture or your skin is light. It’s the fact that the laws and the culture tell you this. You have a right to go where you want to go, do what you want to do, be however — and people just got to accommodate themselves to you.”

“So here comes this word that you feel like you invented,” Coates said. “And now somebody will tell you how to use the word that you invented. ‘Why can’t I use it? Everyone else gets to use it. You know what? That’s racism that I don’t get to use it. You know, that’s racist against me. You know, I have to inconvenience myself and hear this song and I can’t sing along. How come I can’t sing along?’”

Coates concluded that white people should use this sense as a lesson: “The experience of being a hip-hop fan and not being able to use the word ‘ni**er’ is actually very, very insightful. It will give you just a little peek into the world of what it means to be black. Because to be black is to walk through the world and watch people doing things that you cannot do, that you can’t join in and do. So I think there’s actually a lot to be learned from refraining.”

About SouthernGirl2

A Native Texan who adores baby kittens, loves horses, rodeos, pomegranates, & collect Eagles. Enjoys politics, games shows, & dancing to all types of music. Loves discussing and learning about different cultures. A Phi Theta Kappa lifetime member with a passion for Social & Civil Justice.
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7 Responses to Ta-Nehisi Coates explains why white people can’t say the N-word

  1. rikyrah says:

    That was excellent

    Like

  2. yahtzeebutterfly says:

    Thanks for posting Ta-Nehisi’s 38 minute video, SG2. It is excellent.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. yahtzeebutterfly says:

    Good Morning, SG2.

    Ta-Nehisi Coates’ explanation here should be VERY clear to EVERY White individual. It is excellent.

    In addition, it needs to be remembered, that throughout the history of our country, that word coming from a White person’s mouth has been used negatively. Therefore, a White person should NEVER use that word. White people need to stop, reflect, and shed any brainwashing that made them falsely superior and shed any behavior or words that reflect that false MYTH of being superior.

    In his book “Between the World and Me” Ta-Nehisi Coates writes on page 120:

    “I saw that what divided me from the world was not anything intrinsic to us but the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they had named us matters more than anything we could ever actually do.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • yahtzeebutterfly says:

      You know, I think any White person using that word is either full of hateful bigotry/racism or has a huge case of being oblivious to the deep-seated racism within him/her.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Liza says:

        And lacking emotional intelligence.

        Liked by 2 people

      • yahtzeebutterfly says:

        Wow, Liza, you have opened up a whole new area for me to learn about. I had not heard the term “emotional intelligence.” I have known that having a kind, caring, compassionate heart helps one navigate the world fairly and helpfully.

        But, I have just looked up various articles on “emotional intelligence” to learn more about it and its relationship to racism.

        I just found this article that I am now going to read:
        https://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/handle/2027.42/98929/lfrisch.pdf;sequence=1

        Do you have any guidance or recommendations for me?

        I do want you to know that when I had reread these words I wrote this morning, I was feeling I did not write exactly what I was feeling:

        “White people need to stop, reflect, and shed any brainwashing that made them falsely superior and shed any behavior or words that reflect that false MYTH of being superior.”

        …I was feeling incensed that there are people who dare to “lord it over other people” and that there are people who will do anything whether cruelly or desperately to hold onto an unearned advantage that they might hold over others. I was thinking more in terms of that as “White Supremacy.”

        Liked by 1 person

      • Liza says:

        Yahtzee, one of my sisters was a psychologist and I remember her talking about emotional intelligence a really long time ago. In fact, I think we were talking about my brother and his lack of. I don’t know of any great books on the subject.

        Liked by 1 person

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