When it comes to repurposing racial slurs like the n-word, white people need to understand that they’re not entitled to everything, author Ta-Nehisi Coates has said.
Mr Coates, a leading intellectual and commentator on African-American issues, was asked during a panel about white hip-hop fans who want to rap along when they they hear black rappers use the word n****r that functions both as a hateful epithet and a source of black solidarity.
In response, Mr Coates offered a point he has long made about language: context and relationships matter. He noted that he would not use an anti-LGBT slur that some gay people use amongst themselves, and that he does not join in when his wife and her female friends use the word “b***h”.
While Mr Coates and his wife call each other “honey”, he noted, “if we were walking down the street together and a strange woman referred to me as ‘honey’ that wouldn’t be acceptable”.
But “when you’re white in this country you’re taught that everything belongs to you. You think you have a right to everything”, Mr Coates argued, which offers a false sense of entitlement to certain words that have special resonance for groups that have experienced those words as an attack.
Discarding that outlook and realizing that the n-word is unacceptable, Mr Coates said, could help white people empathize with African-Americans’ history of dispossession.
“For white people, I think the experience of being a hip-hop fan and not being able to use the word ‘n****r’ is actually very very insightful”, Mr Coates said. “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”.