Tuesday, August 13, 2013

N-Word, Rap and Black Friends: Awkward?


"I'm a 34-year-old white male. Me and most of the guys I work with and play in a basketball league with listen to the same music: hip-hop (old and new) and rap. Of course some songs have the n-word in them. I'm one of the only nonblack guys in the group, which has never caused an issue. But as the only white person, I'm uncomfortable when we're all hanging out and the word comes up in songs, especially when it's my car or at my apartment. I feel like I'm responsible for it. Am I being paranoid? Part of me thinks it's fine because I know we all like the same music, but part of me thinks I should have different rules because I'm not black. Should I ask one of my friends? All of them? Thank you in advance for any advice." --Nonracist Rap Fan

Your question's a thoughtful one, and probably a common one, too. Although the actual percentage is up in the air, it's agreed upon that nonblack listeners buy a good chunk of the rap and hip-hop out there -- and I'm pretty sure they're not all limiting themselves to the sanitized radio versions of their favorite songs.

Yes, our still very racially segregated society means that most aren't singing along to Wu-Tang Clan's "Shame on a Nigga" while surrounded by the people whom the slur was created to insult. But I'm sure you're not alone in feeling a little funny about enjoying art -- even black-created and black-endorsed art -- littered with a term that would brand you as hateful, backward and racist-with-a-capital-R if you uttered it in conversation.

You won't be surprised that there's no easy answer. If there were, an informal Twitter poll that I took on this topic wouldn't have devolved into a debate about the term "white trash," during which I was called a "welfare mouth." (What?! But that's for another column.)

Part of what makes it complicated is that African Americans have wildly divergent feelings about the word. Everyone knows that it has its origins in some of the more disturbing parts of our country's racist history, but that's kind of where the agreement ends. It's actually the perfect reminder that there isn't a single black view on anything, no big annual meeting where we decide what matters to us and what doesn't and send out bullet points. But on this topic, I find that views are uniquely unpredictable.

Here is just a handful of takes that I've heard from African Americans:

"No one should say it ever."
"No one should say the word 'nigger,' but 'nigga' is fine."
"It depends on context, but the only context that's OK is when a black person says it."
"It depends on context but the only context that's OK is when we know the speaker isn't being racist."
"Damn rappers for saying it and giving everyone else permission to say it."
"Rappers might say it, but that doesn't mean it works outside of a song."
"The word has been reclaimed. Get over it."
"It's a great term for everyone, male or female, including my dog."
"No other group would dare answer to such a derogatory name."

Yeah, it's a lot. No wonder you're floundering a little.

So, can you talk to the guys you hang out with and make sure you're not deeply offending them every time you press play? Absolutely, and as a friend, you should be able to. But that won't solve your whole problem. First, as I said above, one or two people can't answer for everyone.

Just as important, I don't think a quick "Hey, hearing Jay-Z at my place doesn't bother you, does it?" will really get at what your deeper goal is: to have meaningful relationships where you fit in, without taking advantage of your somewhat privileged position and without inadvertently harming anyone.

You have to figure out where you stand on this. As David Leonard, chair of the department of critical culture, gender and race studies at Washington State University at Pullam, puts it, race is often "seen and imagined as a problem of people of color -- people of color are responsible for dealing with it, for bringing it up or not bringing it up."

But that doesn't have to be the case. 

Consider that you have a right to have an investment in issues surrounding race and language. You, as an American and as a decent person, have the right to find a word that originated in a dehumanizing context (that has residual effects today) unpleasant. Leonard's advice: "Ask yourself why does it make you uncomfortable, and what can you do to use that discomfort as something to transform yourself and the conditions of racism and our society?"

If you're not comfortable, as a white male, consuming and repeating this word or with an entire industry profiting off of it, then it wouldn't be crazy for you to be more selective about what you listen to, your friends' views aside.

You also have a right to decide that your n-word assessment depends on context and intent and "-ga" versus "-ger" formulations, or on your observations about what it means to those around you. But you want to be able to articulate that for yourself.

What will get rid of your discomfort is to take some ownership, not just of the choices you make about the music that's played at your house, but of your role as a white man with black friends in a racist society that I guarantee will show its worst side in ways much more urgent than rap lyrics. Do that, and then go ahead and have a real conversation with the guys about it. Just as with music, when it comes to your sincere efforts to be a good friend, I'm willing to bet that they prefer the unedited version.

The Root's staff writer, Jenée Desmond-Harris, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life -- and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her onTwitter.