“When can I say the n-word?”, many white people are asking themselves and others, in workplaces across the country. “What is the specific scenario in which, I, a white person, can use the arguably most widely known and unambiguously hateful racial slur that exists in the English language? I need to know, just in case it comes up.”
I’m just kidding. No one is doing this.
At least not systemically, or in any kind of widespread fashion, because even the most racist white people know they’re not supposed to say the n-word. I just wanted a Bari Weiss kind of lede to see if I felt more morally validated after writing it. Let’s try another variation: “Every day, people call me, on a real phone, to complain that in the most improbable of potential scenarios where they have to say the actual n-word to convey its meaning, they are censored from doing it by leftists who cancel people recreationally.”
Yeah, I feel nothing.
But this is an actual issue with some individuals—who seem to skew largely White Guys Who Are Definitely Not Zoomers. The most high profile examples recently: Don McNeil at The New York Times, and Mike Pesca at Slate, both of whom had used the word in a professional context in 2019 and now have been relieved of their employment, McNeil of his own volition at least formally, and Pesca, not.
I should state up front that I think these are different cases, and as with everything, should be evaluated with the benefit of context. And without reporting those stories out further, I can’t speculate about whether these men were suspended because they used the n-word once in an acceptable context, or whether there were other factors.
But sometimes in cases like these there are other factors—and I feel the need to say this because a lot of people don’t seem to consider it. The thing about modern workplace culture is that we have feedback systems that are designed to give people warnings before they get fired or seriously disciplined for bad behavior. Sometimes lots of them. And so the thing that ends up being the precipitating event that leads to a firing or an encouraged resignation might not be the biggest or most important event. I don’t know if that’s the case with either of these guys, but media accounts allude to more than just one mention of the n-word in Peru, and more than a single Slack discussion about its propriety. So I think it’s important to keep in mind what you do know—and what you don’t.
And this is not to say that stupid firings don’t happen. They do. If you think this is a vast problem, allow me to interest you in the destruction of at-will employment, which essentially allows people to be fired for almost any reason.
But let’s move away from these specific cases, to the BIG QUESTION:
WHEN IS IT OKAY TO SAY THE N-WORD?
I get the (entirely subjective, admittedly) sense that the kind of person for whom this question is actually confusing will typically only listen to advice from other white people, so I feel a little under 75% qualified to answer it for them. My grandpa is not white, but my mother is half, and I don’t know who biological dad is, but I just looked in the mirror and I’m pretty sure he’s white. So for purposes of this discussion, I am definitely a white lady.
So from a White Person to Other White People: here are some proposed guidelines about the approximately never scenarios in which you can say the n-word, and why.
Definitions: Use and Mention
I also need to get some definitions out of the way because a lot of the arguments around this that are remotely serious hinge on the distinction between use of the n-word and mentioning the n-word. This is the difference between saying the n-word in the way that racists intend and mentioning it in the context of explaining that other people have said the word in the way that racists intend. Some defenses of white people saying the n-word have been rooted in the idea that they are mentioning the n-word which is not the same as using it, and that is true. Just linguistically, at minimum. But mention does a lot of heavy lifting for some people for reasons we’ll get to.
Frequently Asked Questions, Starting With The Lamest, Most Bad Faith Ones.
I want to start with the incredible and dumber, less complex justifications I heard growing up in a place where I heard the n-word routinely. Pa Spiers--my adoptive dad, who is very, very white--was not remotely a liberal, or particularly invested in egalitarian values, but he taught me and my two brothers (who were not adopted, and also super white, and we were all kind of redneck-y, because it’s rural Alabama) before we entered kindergarten that the n-word was something WE NEVER SAY. Not because Pa Spiers was racially sensitive but he was not racist enough to think it was acceptable, and because he wasn’t oblivious, and he knew we’d hear it that early.
And we did! Mostly with no justification, because very racist people often teach their children to be racist, and saying the n-word unabashedly is what unabashedly racist people do. But sometimes with very specific justifications that I have also heard voiced by people who think they are not racist. Abashedly racist, let’s say.
The first justification I ever heard was some variation on: But Black people say the n-word in rap songs! Why can’t I say it?
This is a white person objection as old as Bill Curtis and the Fatback Band probably, even though they never said it. It’s something I heard growing up when people who really wanted to say the n-word in a use, not mention, sense said to try to justify it.
The answer to this is simple: when you use it, as a white person, it has a different meaning. The people who do it anyway and use this as an excuse are probably people I grew up with and no, Krystal, I’m not going to attend your essential oils party on Facebook, and you know damn well that it’s not the same thing.
But what if I’m rapping the actual rap song?
My standing position is that white people shouldn’t rap unless their names are:
Adam Yauch (R.I.P.)
And there are some people who think they shouldn’t rap either! They are wrong, but still.
(I should also mention that there is a white lady who until recently worked at Smith College and very badly wants to rap her presentations. I wrote about her here.)
I suppose this n-word via rapping could happen in a maybe not-bad-faith way: there’s the (not Black) young woman on TikTok who got into trouble because she rapped a rap song that had the n-word in it and got blowback. I don’t even remember her name because I am too old to distinguish between TikTok influencers but I assume her last name was Paul, because that seems to be the case with all of them. Anyway, she says she was confused by this because she was just stanning the song! Which she loves!
This is a plausible explanation, but if you need a guideline here:
If you are rapping a song you love, you still do not need to say the n-word because no one is going to arrest you if you don’t quote the lyrics accurately. People mangle song lyrics all the time, both intentionally and unwittingly. There’s even a word for the latter: mondegreen. Mondegreens are kind of awesome, and a window into the most hilarious parts of our psyches. If you really need to rap a lyric that includes the n-word, you can wait until the space right before the n-word, and then shut the fuck up for two seconds.
If you don’t realize this because you’re a teenager and dumb about a lot of things, you get a pass. If you’re an adult who’s capable of critical thinking, you get less of a pass.
So, on the rapping front, in summary:
“Black people say the n-word in rap. Can I say it?”
Here’s the litmus test: Ask yourself, “Am I Black people?”
If, no: You shouldn’t say it for all of the reasons articulated above. No one will stop you, but you shouldn’t do it.
If, yes. You do what you want, I’m in no position to tell you, as a total white lady (for purposes of this conversation.)
Now on to the professionally applicable scenarios:
Can I say the n-word if I am citing someone else saying the n-word, say in a podcast or conversation with co-workers?
The answer here is, it depends. And the primary criterion holds: are you, person who wants to use the actual n-word instead of the obvious alternative—”the n-word”—a white person? Or a Black person?
If the answer is yes, I am a white person, then probably not, if for the sole reason that you have an obviously available alternative that is not likely to do any harm whatsoever, and the decision to not use it in lieu the actual word, which is painful for some people to hear even in a mention context, is a choice that reflects on you.
And here’s the more serious part, I guess:
This is what’s so honestly disturbing to me about both the McNeil situation and the Pesca situation to me: why did they need to say it? Why did they seem determined to say it? (With Pesca, this was a recurring issue.)
Defenders of the mention scenario—who are mostly white men, at least in my Twitter timeline—frame this as a use/mention issue, and certainly, it technically qualifies. They are not using the words the way a real racist (which is somehow only ever a pointy hat-wearing hate group member in this context) would, but using it to relay an incident where someone else has used it.
But why do they have to use it at all?
Is there any situation where a white person needs to the actual n-word instead of
I can think of only one: a court proceeding where the word has to be read verbatim for legal documentation reasons.
So why include it? Why is it necessary?
Why is it so hard to just say “the n-word” instead of the actual word?
I promise you: it will not be confusing to anyone when you use “the n-word”. No one will be scratching their temple and straining to figure out why “neurasthenic” is suddenly verboten. They know what the “n” stands for.
Is there any justifiable reason to use the n-word?
Mmmmm…. Not really. (Unless you’re Black, in which case, you’re probably not reading this column because as I said up front, it’s directed at dense white people.)
And here’s the big thing:
You, white person, need to understand that there is a very different thing going on when a Black person says something like, let me tell you about a time when someone called me a [n word]. Then saying the word might be necessary to convey the direct impact and horror of being on the receiving end of that word, and to convey how dehumanizing it is, how freighted with history and blood.
You don’t understand this, and you can’t understand it. You can try very hard to sympathize. You can try to help. But you will never understand it fully because you are not Black.
I will never understand it because I am not Black.
(A digression, which I can make because I have no editor!: it does not matter if you have a Black spouse or a Black child. You still will never understand it fully. That’s a different column, and I have lots of thoughts about adoption as an adoptee, and since we’re on the topic, please read Rebecca Carroll’s magnificent memoir. She’s a gifted writer on any topic, but can speak to this particularly: trans-racial adoption is far more complex than people make it out to be and I don’t get viscerally angry very much, but one of my hot buttons is conservative politicians using their non-white adopted kids as cudgels to defend racist views they have.)
The reality is: I haven’t experienced racism personally in any meaningful way. I occasionally get emails from racists speculating about my ethnicity because I’m not a blonde Aryan princess but it’s rare, and they’re always wrong about my ethnicity, even when they do that, which is sometimes unintentionally hilarious. (My nose is identical to my grandpa Apolinar’s: prominent and definitely not button-y, and it seems to be a feature the racists very specifically like to evaluate.)
But I don’t have any idea what it’s like to be called the n-word. Or to hear it referenced casually, in a professional conversation. Or to have to sit quietly while your non-Black colleagues discuss a racist incident with clinical detachment because they can.
My non-white grandfather had to face a lot of racism, but I also don’t equate it to what Black people specifically have experienced. I did not grow up thinking about these things, nor am I naturally attuned to them. I do try to think about them though, and I try to be as aware as I can.
And people who are trying to be sensitive listen to feedback. They do better next time. They certainly don’t keep saying the n-word when there’s a readily available alternative that hurts nobody.
Why does this keep happening, besides the obvious explanation that these people doing it must be explicitly racist?
One theory: Ego/boundary testing and generational friction. There’s an explanation that is not directly about race but adjacent to it: the people who keep insisting on saying the word on a mention basis and fighting to defend the incredible outlier scenarios where it might be appropriate are largely reacting to shifts in generational social norms that they don’t like because they’re resentful that younger people determine the dominant norms now. (As has always been the case, throughout history!)
Who are you, young lady, to tell me that something that was perfectly acceptable in 1982 is not okay now? And it brings up other anxieties about irrelevancy: fears about being unable to adapt, resentment about having to adapt, and knee-jerk anger about authority figures who enforce these new norms.
That may be generational friction.
Ego issues, however, are not age-specific.
I’ve been on the receiving end of both, as someone who, more than once, has been installed as the new manager at publications and companies with staff I inherited and who did not expect that they would have a new boss. But I have more experience with the latter. When I’ve been thrust into these situation, I’ve always had one or two people who’d punch me in the face just to see if they could get away with it. (Not literally. Just garden variety asshole-ish behavior.)
Boundary testing is normal in that situation, but in these cases, it went beyond normal poking and prodding. It was open insubordination to see what I’d do.
So I fired them. I had to. If I hadn’t, it would have escalated, demoralized everybody in the office, and made it nearly impossible for me to do my job.
(And I think firing people is the worst part of management, even when they really, really, really deserve it. I went to the bathroom and dry heaved for 20 minutes the first time I ever had to do it, at the age of 25, and the person I was firing had basically disappeared from work for two weeks. I don’t like inflicting that level of terror and humiliation, which is what firing does, even when it’s warranted. )
I have kneejerk issue with authority myself in that I am distrustful of bureaucracy, I need a reason for rules to exist before I follow them, and if I think they’re really stupid I might violate them, and enjoy it! But part of evaluating whether they’re stupid is considering whether they only affect me.
So I suspect that some of this norm busting re: the n-word is that: big egos throwing their weight around.
This is still adjacent to race, because you have to be pretty confident that your job is secure to do it, or that the institution needs you on some level and that you can’t be fired. It is much harder for many reasons for a woman or a member of a minority to push boundaries with managers, who skew white and male, at least in media, and they’re punished more severely when they violate norms.
And again: Does anyone ever really need to say the actual n-word? Why not just use “the n-word”, or a “racial slur” in routine descriptive contexts?
Well, some argue—and did, in my Twitter feed—that might lead to a slippery slope scenario where “the n-word” as a construction is offensive itself.
A note on outliers and slippery slopes:
I floated this on Twitter, and a writer for a prestigious magazine whose writing on economic and financial issues I like (but I get the sense does not feel the same about mine—booooo!), protested and pointed out a case where a law professor at UIC John Marshall Law School used another shorthand stand in for the n-word, specifically, the first letter followed by an ellipsis, and it generated a petition calling for him to step down. He had not used the actual n-word, but a stand in that is not literally “the n-word”.
Do I think the professor in question should be fired for using an abbreviation that’s not literally “the N-word” on an exam? No. (And he wasn’t fired.) But context is everything: this professor has been using the same test for ten years, and the detail isn’t germane to the legal question being asked. Why include it?
But aha!, said my Twitter antagonist said. So this is a scenario that might happen! And it did!
I don’t think this guy is a free speech absolutist, but it’s a free speech absolutist argument, and absolutists love slippery slopes more than Olympic downhill speed skiing gold medalists.
But is this happening… generally? No. The writer knows about this case because it is an exception, not the norm. It is an outlier, and that’s why it’s been written about and discussed extensively.
Ah, yes, but the exception COULD become the norm!
Of course it could. That applies to … anything. Right now there are also extreme right wingers trying to pass laws in state legislatures that all kinds of unreasonable things get codified into law. Loyalty pledges to the U.S. or god or Donald Trump specifically, that women do biologically impossible things with their bodies to ensure the perfect and safe birth of babies that aren’t viable, that the state song of Alabama be changed to the Lynyrd Skynyrd one. (This was the perennial favorite bill when I did Youth In Government in high school but it also existed in the actual state legislature.) That does not mean that these things are likely to cascade into an avalanche of insanity.
And you have to consider that free speech absolutism means that some people get hurt. Because this is the stage where the absolutists consider the virtues of liberty while ignoring the perils of harm that absolute liberties might cause. They want to throw a punch, and if your face is in the way, it’s not their problem. (This kind of absolutism was not the Founders’ position, by the way.)
But free speech absolutists tend to have some Venn diagram overlap with free market absolutists so consider this:
It’s not really prudent for a for-profit company to enable or tolerate norms that alienate or harm stakeholders that are meaningful to them.
Workplace norms are different than in-the-privacy-of-your-own-home norms. Therefore, corporations can set their own standards because capitalism doesn’t care about your positions on absolute free speech, or your feelings about any of these things. And it might be bad for business to: alienate your employees who are people of color, alienate customers who are people of color, alienate top tier talent who are people of color, make your work environment what labor lawyers would define as “hostile” by exhibiting repeated disrespect for people of color who work there and even if you don’t quite cross the red line of legal discrimination.
And workplace norms change over time. I wasn’t alive and working in the advertising industry in the 1960s, but I gather from watching Mad Men that it was pretty acceptable to have a martini in the office at 11am, demand that your assistant be an attractive woman with breasts of a certain size, never hire or promote a person of color for any reason, and no one would really care if you had sex in conference room in the middle of the day as long as the door was closed. **
Consider that thinking about how you frame and talk about racist incidents might have changed, too. And ultimately:
Why not just be considerate?
I had to think about this recently, in a different context. I called either Donald Trump or a member of the Trump administration a “moron”—a word that’s not yet so socially repulsive that if i said “the m-word” you’d know what I was talking about (and thus the mention scenario is actually kind of necessary here).
Another writer whose work I admire quote tweeted me noting that his son, who has Downs Syndrome, has been called that and it has a connotation for some people that’s not acceptable. I had honestly never thought about this. I knew that the history of the word had its roots in abuse of people with cognitive disabilities but figured modern colloquial usage kind of obviated that and everyone understood that in casual usage it means willful ignorance.
But here’s the thing: now that I know it’s being used as a slur against disabled kids, can I, in good faith, still use it casually? No. Because I can’t unknow that. And there are other available ways to say that someone is being wilfully ignorant. I am a writer; it should be easy for me. McNeil and Pesca are writers. They are professional experts on deploying language to convey meaning. They are ostensibly good at it!
And I don’t say that to suggest that saying the n-word is perfectly equivalent to saying what I will now call the “m-word”. I say it to suggest that if you know, for a fact, because people have told you, and you’re a smart person, that it’s harmful in a way that is meaningful to the people affected, and there’s a readily available alternative right there, what’s your real excuse for not using it?
** In the interest of pre-empting the literalists: Yes, I know Mad Men was not a documentary.