Why You Shouldn’t Use the N-Word

Alright, let’s be clear. I’m white. My ancestors were, if not actually involved, involved by association in the slave trade, and if not the slave trade then some other repression of non-whites. I probably have white guilt, but I realize that reveling in it is pointless, and hubristic. I cannot ask someone to forgive what my ancestors did to them. I am also not directing this at black people. The use of the N-word in black communities is not my responsibility. In my opinion, it should stop being used by black people as well, but I realize that as a white person my opinions on what black people should do are at least automatically suspect, so I have no real right to police black language nor do I feel I should. What I can do is tell white people to stop because really, we have no damn business using it as casually as I have had the misfortune to hear it used. White people, this article if mainly for us, so shit down and shut up while I tell you a thing or two about language.

Someone once said to me “Why shouldn’t we use the N-Word. It’s just a word and word’s aren’t important.” To that I would like to explain that statement without words. Words are important, and make up the basis of how we understand and communicate reality. While the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis may be putting it to strongly, words do have certain associations that make up our understanding of the world. As such, language has power.

White people shouldn’t use the N-Word because it’s a racial slur. Really, it should be that simple. It’s a word that has been used to demean an entire group of people as part of a wider social attack on them that includes kidnapping, slavery, theft and pretty much every other form of abuse you can care to name. The N-Word is tied up in all that, and that alone makes it wrong. I think that the main problem is that white people don’t really have a slur that affects us. If someone were to call me a honky, I would probably be surprised and a bit uncomfortable, but generally it’s not something that is repeated. I don’t think I have ever been called a honky in any manner that wasn’t a joke. I do not have the word nailed in as anything that should make me feel bad about myself. It feels more like a joke to me. As such, I can’t understand what it is really like to be called a racial slur. I can imagine it, and I have a pretty good imagination, but that is the extent of my ability. (For the record, I imagine it is pretty bad).

Also, something I realized about the N-Word, is that it is not only been used to describe people of African decent. The word has been used to describe other ethnicities, usually by adding an adjective (Prairie for First Nations people, Sand for Arabs, etc). My own Irish ancestors were once referred to as N-Words by a member of the British Ascendency. While some people may think that makes the N-Word up for grabs, the truth is much worse. By adding an adjective, they are merely adding a characteristic to the N-Word. The exact subject matter of the N-Word remains, in this case “someone who is less than me”, and is merely being added to. To make it clearer, to demean other races they are made black.

The N-Word is not just a racial slur. It is the racial slur. It is probably the single most horrid word in the English language. Murder, cannibalism and rape are all words that have been made for an action that we all know is horrible, and naming it puts it into a social context. The N-Word was designed to denigrate an entire people, and it is still used in that manner. It is a horrible word and we should all stop using it.


Review: Django Unchained

WARNING: There are spoilers for people who haven’t seen Django Unchained. If you still want to see this movie, don’t read this article.

I wasn’t expecting Django Unchained to have a very advanced view of race relations in America. I expected it to come down as “slavery is really bad,” and in that respect I wasn’t disappointed. I will also say that it is a very well-put together movie. Quentin Tarantino knows how to put a movie together, the problem is that he is not as deep as he’d like to think he is, and the movie left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

The problem with Django Unchained is that it is a revenge story. The plot of the revenge story is as follows. Somebody does something really, really bad. The Hero corrects this by killing the bad guy. The hero wins and order is restored. Django Unchained takes the revenge plot and places it within the context of the slave plantations of the American south. In this, we are given a thematic sequel to Inglorious Bastards, which I didn’t really like. I liked Django Unchained a bit more, but it still has much off the problems with Inglorious Bastards in that it has a troubling view of history. Quentin Tarantino is obviously shocked at the crimes of the Holocaust and the slave trade, but I don’t think he’s handling it in the best way. It’s easy for us to get angry about this and want to kill the sons of bitches who were responsible, but it is not for us to do that. My ancestors were not interned in death camps or shipped across the ocean like a sardine, then have their entire identities stripped away. I don’t know what it’s like to be socially repressed, and I am fully aware of how problematic it would be for me to do it.

There’s also the fact that, for a movie ostentatiously about black people, there is an awful lot of white person driving the plot. Dr. Shultz is probably the most engaging character in the movie. He’s articulate, has most of the best lines, and is the closest thing the movie has to a decent white guy. He also “frees” Django, but only because he needs him to track down his bounty. He openly says that while he finds the institution of slavery distasteful, but he takes advantage of it any way to meet his own ends. Django, for his part, isn’t really that developed a character. He’s basically a Nat Turner, an archetype of the Black Man’s rage against the White Man. Despite that, he is still lacking in agency of his own. He exists in the White Man’s world, despite the fact he is an agent against that world. Django is quite simply, not a very engaging character, despite the movie being about him.

The thing about Quentin Tarantino is that really, he’s not writing these stories for Jews or Black People, he’s writing them for the ancestors of the oppressors. Our culture has come to the realization that our institutions are based on a history of violence against all kinds of people, such as Jews, people of African descent, Hispanics, Asians, women, homosexuals, First Nations, forgive me if I miss anybody here. As a straight white cisgendered male, this brings up questions of my own identity. This is not to belittle the discrimination of others, quite the opposite in fact. We simply don’t know how to process being “the bad guy.” Some of us ignore it completely, and some of us make Django Unchained. Neither of these is a healthy way to come to terms with this, and I think the best thing is just to move on. We should acknowledge what happened in the past, and we should get over it. Again turning to Django as Nat Turner, we have the archetype of the unruly black man fighting against the tyranny of the White Man, in service of the White Man’s guilt at being the White Man. There is a bit of displacement with Stephen, the Uncle Tom house servant, but Stephen’s status as part of the White Establishment connects him thematically to the White Establishment. To take this to its most troubling conclusion, we have Stephen so we don’t have to see Django kill the powerful white man. Sure we see him kill a lot of white guys, but when it comes to the man we are lead to believe is the most evil man in the South, the dead is done by his white partner.

If you’re expecting a look into America’s dark heart, this is probably not the best movie, it’s too one-dimensional for that. Quentin Tarantino is, at the end of the day, an exploitation film-maker who has somehow managed to get into the big leagues, and has somehow gotten the idea that he’s got something deep to say about the human condition. In the end, Django comes off as highly problematic, but again, I was expecting it to be. If Quentin Tarantino wanted to bring up issues of race, he has only done so in as much as we can all agree that Quentin Tarantino is not cut out to be bringing up the question of race.


Surviving “Django” by Roxane Gay