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History Behind Racial Slurs: the N-Word

Updated: May 29, 2023

Note: we do not intend to speak for the Black community. Rather, we seek to educate fellow Asians on the history behind the n-word and why non-Black individuals should not use the term. We are still teenagers and learning every day, so please let us know if our information is incorrect!

Dear Asian Youth,

As I sat waiting for the lady at the front desk to call me up for driving test, I heard an Asian teenager use the n-word. Did I hear that right? Quite frankly, I was shocked. I never spoke the word, let alone listened to songs with the word in its lyrics. So when I heard the racial slur slip out of that boy's mouth ever so casually, I was reminded of just how many people are oblivious to the history behind the n-word. It's simple, really: if you're not Black, don't use the n-word.

Known as a prominent racial pejorative in the 21st century, the n-word originated from the Spanish word negro, a descendent of the Latin word niger, both of which mean “Black.” Its derogatory usage rose from the Jim Crow era when African Americans were discriminated against and persecuted by white countrymen. Even further back in history was the Civil War, when American soldiers fought on their own soil against their own people to abolish the institution of slavery. African Americans served vital roles on both sides: they worked as nurses, spies, cooks, blacksmiths. Southern general Robert E. Lee wrote, “The chief source of information to the enemy is through our negroes." While they readily joined and fought bravely with their white counterparts on Union and Confederate lines, the end of war only resulted in continued hostility toward Black people. Although more Blacks became free men in Northern states, they were still seen as nothing close to equals. Even today, Black people are held to preconceived notions of being "thuggish" and "uneducated". Despite pernicious effects, the n-word continues to be carelessly tossed around in non-Black communities, furthering racism and undermining centuries of hardship.

As hip-hop is becoming increasingly popular in mainstream media, the n-word has made frequent appearances in the lyrics of many well-known songs. Black artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino, and XXXtentacion have chosen to incorporate the term into their music. Their music has topped international charts, streamed by millions of all races and ethnicities. As we are not members of the Black community, we do not have the right to determine whether or not Black artists should include the n-word in their art, as it is a large part of their ancestral history. However, what should be noted is that the prevalence of the n-word in pop culture has normalized the use of the term. Music does not have a set audience, meaning all types of people are exposed to songs that include the n-word. People may settle into the mindset that if the term is included in music, it is not as severe or impactful. Even so, according to The Chronicle writer, Victoria Priester, “This word wasn’t used to antagonize, belittle and demean people who look like you for centuries, so it isn’t your choice to decide when enough time has passed for it to be okay to use again”. “It's just a song lyric” and “I didn't mean it like that” are not valid excuses for using a racial slur. In fact, many Black artists have expressed that they are vehemently opposed to the idea of non-Black people using the n-word. A white female fan, for instance, went on stage and rapped along to Kendrick Lamar's “m.A.A.d city” during a music festival. When the fan repeatedly sang the n-word, Lamar was reportedly extremely angry and asked the fan to be removed from the stage. Even though it may be a part of lyrics, it doesn’t automatically give non-Black people the right to use it.

Although I cannot speak for and do not intend to speak for the Black community, I want to use this platform to call out those who defend themselves by saying, “ I wasn’t trying to be offensive, it was just a joke!” No matter what your intention is, the word still holds great impact. When it comes to racial slurs like the n-word, the interpretation is far more important than the intent. It’s simple. You do not need to be subscribed to some racist doctrine to say something with racist implications. The blood-and-sweat-soaked history behind the n-word is not something to be taken lightly. This slur is not only reflective of slavery, but also shoulders the history of discrimination and prejudicial behavior against Black people. It has been used for decades by non-Black people as an oppressive term to dehumanize the Black community. As outsiders, it is not up to us to dictate how this term is used or how it circulates within conversation. By using this racial slur, there is an assertion of authority — an authority we are not entitled to.

Mitigating the use of such a damaging slur comes in several steps. First, educate yourself. Make sure you know the underlying meaning of the n-word and why it is so offensive. In doing so, you will begin to understand the systemic racism the Black community has endured. Second, share your knowledge with non-Black friends, parents, and relatives. Hold conversations with them so they acknowledge that the creation of the n-word is a product of racism. Finally, call people out. When you hear peers misusing the word, speak up. By calling someone out, you are holding them accountable. Though you may hurt feelings and create discomfort, that is a small price to pay compared to the grand scheme of things.

Upon noticing my frustration at deaths caused by police brutality, my mom asked to have a chat with me. From why #BlackLivesMatter is a legitimate movement to the murders of Amaud Arbury, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and and countless more, I explained the centurities of hatred toward the Black community.

Out of the blue, she said, “To be honest, when I see Black people sometimes, I get scared of them.” My first instinct was to call her a racist. How could she, after hearing my reasons for allyship, tell me she sees an entire group of people through racist lenses?

“Their lack of education makes them more dangerous,” she stated.

I was baffled. “What? This is about the oppression Black people have endured since slavery. I will never have to worry about being pulled over and losing my life for my skin color. And the stereotype that African Americans are less educated effectively undermines their capabilities and who they are as a person. Not to mention, the existing education gap between Black and white communities stem from redlining. Even in the Civil Rights Movement era, Blacks were denied various opportunities.”

She looked at me after I shared my thoughts and asked to see articles and videos covering police brutality. “Thank you for sharing your views. I will look more into what is happening,” she later said.

You see, though it may be uncomfortable to discuss #BlackLivesMatter with your loved ones, even one conversation can change their viewpoint.

Black people need to feel safe in America. As we learn to love ourselves and our skin color, we must fulfill our duty and stand in solidarity with our Black brothers and sisters. We need to stand with them so that blatant racism is not normalized. The first step is to completely remove the n-word from our tongues. When you begin to respect Black people and their history, you will earn their respect as well.

- Josephine and Eva


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