Benjamin Franklin once said that in this world, nothing is certain but death and taxes. Over time, there’s more we can add to that list, including the occasional discussion on who’s licensed to use the N-word.
Racism, in general, could be added to that list to encompass all things, from the history and use of the N-word to Franklin’s past as an enslaver, but I digress.
That occasional discussion has reappeared with the use of the N-word by a white Missouri teacher who was captured saying it by a Black student in class with her cell phone. The teacher was placed on administrative leave. He has since resigned and no longer works for the district. The student, a high school sophomore, was suspended for three days for recording the teacher.
It should be noted that the high school, as well as the school district as a whole, has a history of suspending Black students disproportionately.
To be clear, the student only recorded the teacher because any charge of racism needed iron-clad proof. It’s never enough for a Black person to say that racism occurred. In many cases, evidence isn’t enough for skilled lawyers arguing before the Supreme Court of the United States due to the standard of strict scrutiny.
To be clear, I’ve been Black for the entire 40 years of my life. Therefore, these two things are true. First, Black folks oftentimes must complete an obstacle course the likes of “American Ninja Warrior” to prove that an incident of racism happened. Second, white people are vexed they cannot say the N-word and Black people can.
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The teacher in question tried to explain: “I don’t like the word… It feels like when a Black person is using it towards another Black person…how is it not still a derogatory word? … Is this word, ‘n—–,’ not allowed?”
Again, I’ve been Black my whole life.
I don’t need scientific data to offer as evidence that white people dislike the inability to say the N-word while Black people can. I know from personal experience, although I could easily gather data by asking my white colleagues at work or polling random white people in the street.
I’ve heard white peers when in school, white authority figures when a youth and even white colleagues as an adult all ask the question why. The car scene in “White Chicks” was art imitating white life. Shout out to the mad scientist Keenen Ivory Wayans.
But white people can’t say the N-word, and the reason why they can’t say it is because they just can’t. As Ta-Nehisi Coates has shared previously, words are not without context. Just because my wife refers to me with a phrase doesn’t make it acceptable for someone else to refer to me with that same phrase because there is a context that surrounds the use of that phrase as a result of our relationship.
Throughout the Black experience, Black people have redefined language within our governance structures to suit our contexts as a result of our relationship with each other. The N-word is no different. That we have distinguished the hard “-er” with the “-a” is evidence of that.
… and that white folks wish to use the N-word, with little to no regard for the spelling, is evidence of something else. It is evidence of a desire to use a word manifested out of a functional need to dehumanize African people.
There is a valid argument that Black people should not say the N-word, as a term of endearment or otherwise. However, Black people have the license to make that determination for themselves. White folks don’t have the right to determine that for us. Nor the right to say the N-word themselves.
… meanwhile, a 15-year-old Black girl was suspended because she needed evidence of racism.
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Rann Miller is an educator and freelance writer based in New Jersey. His Urban Education Mixtape blog supports urban educators and parents of children attending urban schools. He is the author of “Resistance Stories from Black History for Kids” (Bloom Books for Young Readers) released on March 7, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Target. Follow him on Twitter @RealRannMiller.