I don’t really want to talk about the n-word. But here we are.
I’m old enough to remember when rap and hip-hop burst onto the scene. Ever since, there’s been a robust debate about why it is okay for black performers—and ultimately, black citizens—to use the term but not anybody else.
That debate hasn’t really disappeared, and the same cliches define it. The argument for a black cultural monopoly on the word remains that doing so will “take away its power.” Just as homosexuals sought to reclaim the word “queer,” blacks used the n-word to rob it of its ability to dehumanize. As Randall Kennedy wrote in 2000, many African Americans have “transformed it from a sign of shame to be avoided if possible into a sign of pride to be worn assertively.” By the time Kennedy wrote Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, this was the dominant interpretation and defense of the widespread use of the n-word by blacks in music and everyday life.