It’s Never Okay to Use the N-Word

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Dear Al:

My son “Justin” plays on a basketball team that is mostly made up of African-American boys whom he likes and socializes with. That doesn’t bother me; in fact, I’m very happy that he has friends who are different from us (we are white).

What I find troubling, however, is how he has started calling his teammates the N-word when they are together. He’ll say something like, “You my N-word.” When I hear that I am sure that I audibly gasp because I hate that word and just can’t imagine anybody (at least any white person) saying that without being hurtful and racist.

If I say something to Justin about how that word has a long history of being insulting and bigoted, he’ll just laughingly dismiss my concerns, saying, “You just don’t get it.” I think I do get it and that some day he’s really “gonna get it.” What do you think?

Hates the N-word

Dear Hates:

What I think is that you are right: “some day he’s really gonna get it.”

Maybe now his black friends think that he’s just like they are because they are all teammates who like each other. But he isn’t just like they are because Justin’s not black. What happens if he says something unrelated to race that ticks off one of his friends while using the N-word. For example, “Come on, N-word, can’t you make an easy lay-up?”

For some reason on that particular occasion his friend doesn’t like Justin’s tone of voice and responds, “Who you calling N-word?”  I don’t know what the chances are, but I don’t think they are in any parallel universe of impossibility. Justin should play the odds and avoid using the word even if his black friends don’t (or don’t seem to) mind because he stands to gain so little and lose so much. Does your son really think that his black friends will like him better because he uses the N-word?

Think of it this way: My Italian relatives-by-marriage can poke fun at what they consider stereotypically comical behavior by that ethnic group and use derisive names for other Italians, but I can’t. Even though they are “family,” I still wouldn’t do it. On the other hand when I think about how my peeps entertain by putting out a box of stale Triscuits; Giant-brand, brick-hard, not-quite-moldy cheddar cheese; all to be washed down with a very top-drawer bottle of Gordon’s, only other WASPs can laugh at them—well, I take that back—anyone can. But you get my point.

Now here is the point for Justin: He should continue to build bonds with his black friends, but always keep in the front of his mind that he isn’t black, and he can’t get away with acting like he is. That’s just a fact—in black and white.

Got questions about life? Love? Parenting? Work? Write to Whit’s End, an advice column by local husband, father, teacher, coach, former executive and former Marine Corps officer Al Whitaker.  Send your questions to [email protected]

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  1. I am shocked by this. I think that he has been accepted into the group and therefore it is okay for him to call his friends this word. At this point, he’s one of them. It obviously is not okay for him to use the word outside of the group — only when uses the word outside of the group is he going to “really get it”.

  2. This is an example of one of the many problems in American society — the blurring of the color line. Zinn has an excellent thesis based on this.

    Personally I think we need a more black-and-white rule — is the word allowed, or not? Not some rule that says “black people can say it but whites can’t”. It only furthers racism.

    • Thank you for a unique insight, Dr. Davis. Some people might say that a blurring is just what we need.

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