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Baas: The words we use are reflections of our personal character

Jared Baas, Columnist

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A recent conversation between friends in my room sparked an avid cultural debate, one that transformed my viewpoint on how language is perceived by modern culture. The question that sparked our discussion was whether it is acceptable for non-black people to use vocabulary, like the N-word, which has historically been derogatory towards black people, when repeating lines from a rap or song lyric.

Some claim that the N-word should not be used by anyone at any point in time, due to its grievous history and offensive nature. Others say that it empowers members of the black community due to the fact that they have overcome burdens associated with the word, and can now use it in a free manner. Still others will argue that anyone can use it as long as they aren’t using it offensively, like in a song or essay.

While everyone seemed to have a stance on the matter, I was definitely torn. I was confident in the fact that I never use the word and don’t condone the use of the word by white people, but I also considered that the artist had some intention in using it. Just because one person isn’t offended when the word is used doesn’t mean everyone feels the same.

The question became this: Do we all have a moral obligation to avoid using the N-word and other offensive words no matter what, or do our identities govern what we are and aren’t allowed to say?

Seeking answers to this question, I performed a quick internet search and found a video of Ta-Nehisi Coates speaking to an audience at Evanston Township High School. Responding to Lil Uzi Vert’s performance at A&O Blowout, one non-black Northwestern student in the audience asked if it was appropriate to use the word when repeating song lyrics and how to react when friends do.

In his reply, Coates outlined how words that have historically been considered derogatory can be reclaimed by different racial and ethnic groups as a means of empowerment. To help explain his argument, Coates used examples of socially acceptable uses of certain words — his wife can appropriately call him “honey,” but a random person wouldn’t be able to. Within other groups, people regularly reclaim derogatory words traditionally used against their identity that wouldn’t be proper for outsiders to employ in conversation. Coates argued that privilege conditions people to believe they can use whatever words they want but that this concept doesn’t apply to the N-word. Ultimately, he says white people shouldn’t be using the word and can learn a lot by having to refrain.

I found much of what Coates said to have some depth of truth, but we can also expand on his logic. Coates said that it’s not your skin or hair color, but rather the laws of your culture that tell you these things. However, culture is a dynamic compilation of many factors beyond race, and one culture cannot be applied to all people who have a certain skin color. Because I am white, the word is not derogatory to my race. But does that mean I shouldn’t be the one to step in when someone uses the N-word? Is that not my place?

At the end of the day, the N-word will always carry so much history and emotional turmoil. Collectively, people decide which words are acceptable and which are offensive. Therefore, can any individual really decide whether it’s acceptable for others to use the word? What this debate boils down to is the fact that our language reflects who we are as people, and how we examine what goes on around us.

It isn’t our job to control other people’s thoughts, but rather to critically examine our own. We have a responsibility to think about what our words mean, and how they will affect other people. Words like the N-word will always have roots in racism and suffering, and there is no way to reuse them in a casual context. The best way we can make a difference in our language is to lead by example and say — or not say — the words that will best represent what we want our society to be. Even if as a non-black person you aren’t sure if you should get involved with someone using the N-word, you have an obligation to decide if that language is the best representation of yourself.

If each and every one of us began to think critically about what we said and why we said it, we wouldn’t end up hurting other people by our language as often as now. That is truly the discussion we should be having: What our language says about who we are, and how we can be better examples for future generations to bring unity to all cultures throughout the country.

Jared Baas is a Weinberg freshman. He can be contacted at jaredbaas2021@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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