Whiteness and the N-Word









The “N-word” made the New York Times this week after it was used repeatedly during a poetry exercise led by two white female poets at the Horace Mann School in the Bronx, leaving that community shaken.  So far, relatively little online discussion about this issue—or the purpose and challenges of using provocative, contemporary poetry in an educational setting—may be partly due to the fact that the poem used as a prompt is still unavailable to the public. While post-assembly shock waves have upset that community’s sense of identity and inspired re-evaluation, recent shock waves from other N-word incidents have left me wondering how to revisit this significant, close-to-home issue with my White teenager next time we’re face to face at the “bitchin’ block”—what my wife and I call our small, butcher block-style kitchen table. For years, my daughter has told me that White teenagers, especially boys, frequently use the N-word as if it’s theirs to throw around.

As a holder of white privilege who grew up listening to and loving John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Woman is the Nigger of the World,” I was alternately fascinated, disturbed and encouraged by readers’ comments to two recent Racialicious pieces written in response to a young white woman’s protest sign echoing the controversial song title at Slut Walk NYC. To anyone who believes we live in a post-racial era—as many of my former students who are White and even a couple of my too-few Black students at Westfield State University argued in class and on the page—check out the following posts. Latoya Peterson and Sofia Quintero write about the failure of feminism and White women to understand and address the intersection of racism and sexism that women of color live every day of their lives:



Readers’ 103 comments and 110 reactions to “They’re Going to Laugh at You: White Women, Betrayal, and the N-Word” were, in places, painful to read. Some comments were so racist, simplistic, defensive, closed-minded, angry and/or attacking that I’m not sure why or how I kept reading. But I did. The degree of honest opinion that anonymous readers reveal online can be sobering.

While several scholarly books could be written on these two articles and their response volleys alone, this morning I found myself tackling the formidable task of trying to give my almost-sixteen-year-old daughter an overview over oatmeal before 7 a.m. and she was right there—wide-eyed, listening and ready to jump in—but then had to catch the school bus. Now, I’m left sitting at our bitchin’ block, brainstorming how to continue this conversation when she gets home. First, I’ll listen.

These days, some White kids use the N-word like they think they know what they’re doing, use it as if replacing the “er” with an “a” solves the complex issue of this word coming from a White speaker. In our relatively progressive New England region, working-class and middle-class White boys who listen to and love rap and hip-hop are often the worst offenders. Lennon and Ono’s song never left me thinking I had “permission” to rebrand the N-word in solidarity with Blacks who reclaim it and utter it with affection. Last year, my kid was making the same well-intentioned and ignorant mistake as the White boys around her, the young woman at SlutWalk NYC and Barbara Walters on The View, among numerous others.

In recent years, my daughter and I’ve had cycles of discussions about the power and politics of this dangerous word, as well as others like “slut” and “bitch,” but neither of these traditionally sexist terms has the same visceral force behind it that the N-word embodies. Perhaps the only sexist equivalent is the C-word. I can’t and won’t say or write the C-word anymore than the N-word. In fact, I’ve never heard women throwing the C-word around in warm solidarity. 

On a lighter note, it’s also true that only women and gay men can call my kitchen table a “bitchin’ block.” Perhaps I should consider changing its name? And if I were a straight man, I’d struggle to say the name of one of my favorite magazines, Bitch. But then, if I were a straight man, it might not be so dear to my heart.

I have to admit: I can fathom a few of Racialicious’ White readers’ righteous defenses. I’ve loved Lennon and Ono’s controversial song and stupidly never spent much time pondering why a Black woman might hear it and wonder “which women are what now?” Yes, I’ll spend the rest of my life learning about the White privilege I hold.

But what most surprised me was the tendency of self-proclaimed White, feminist, liberal progressives to defend White use of the N-word (by Lennon, Walters or the young woman at Slut Walk NYC) rather than LISTEN AND LEARN from the extremely articulate women of color taking their time and energy to passionately speak their truth repeatedly each time a White reader came back with one defense or another, or simply denied the validity of their feelings as WoC.

Likewise, when Barbara Walters expressed astonishment that her co-host, Sherri Shepherd, a Black woman, took offense at Walters’ use of the word—but not Whoopi Goldberg’s use—numerous readers attacked Shepherd for challenging Walters and expressing a widely-held perspective amongst Black women. What excited me—and what I want to share with my teenager—is author and activist Sofia Quintero’s response to a notably open and un-defensive comment by reader Megan Clark:

“Thank you for sharing your experience with this particular issue. Your discovery –‘what I was seeking, in essence, was the opportunity to use a horrifyingly derogatory term, rather than seeking the opportunity to develop relationships through a commitment to truly listen to one another’ – seems to be the epiphany that some are avoiding at all costs.  Can/do you also share what you feel you have gained in exchange for giving up access to the word? Reflections and experiences such as these are the stories that the apologists need to hear to get past all the rhetorical arguments that only add salt to the wounds. Then maybe they’ll find the incentive to take this step themselves.”

Another reader, Rachel Hiltsey, made her powerful point in plainer terms:  “really? really ladies? i know it doesn’t really mean much but i’m really just so so bummed about this. and i’m really really sorry. thank you for calling us on our shit. please keep doing it.”

Although Quintero didn’t respond directly to Hiltsey, I appreciated Hltsey’s raw apology and gratitude for being called on her shit—on behalf of all White women, including this one. The response to her comment (a round of Amens and Thanks) suggested a breakthrough in the dynamic, however brief.

In both cases, the conversation shifted when it went beyond debate and became about acknowledgement—when White readers listened up, opened-up and took some personal responsibility.

Huh. Basic communication skills hard at work again: Don’t just listen—hear the person—don’t defend—allow a little space after their words instead of jumping in—repeat or paraphrase what they just said—ask if that’s what they meant—allow more space after they speak—instead of a rebuttal or defense, consider asking some questions or letting them have the last word—say you’re sorry if you truly are—make it clear you’ll work on the issue—admit that you f-d-up—listen some more—ask some questions—listen… Yes, it’s easier to type this than live it!

Perhaps SlutWalk organizers could consider the perspectives of WoC who don’t feel comfortable marching in the streets with them, or march despite their discomfort? Perhaps the organizers might even reconsider the event’s name?  

And what about the N-word? After a few years of reading, thinking and dialoguing with students on the topic, here’s my current rule of thumb: if you’re trying to decide whether or not it’s okay to use any word that doubles as a slur, here’s a good question to ask: Has the word ever been used to abuse you and/or your family, community or ancestors? No? Then you don’t have the privilege to use it.