The N*Word

**Content warning: this article deals with the use of the N word and in doing so uses it in full on a number of occasions as well as sharing lived experiences by people who have been called it. The article also includes a homophobic slur. There are also descriptions and images depicting enslaved people. **

Author: CEO Janett Walker

“My kid dropped the N word. I am so shocked. It is not a word we use in our house. What should we do?” 

We often get asked this question (or a variation of it) at Anti Racist Cumbria, so we thought we’d try and give some ideas on what you can do when this or something similar happens with your child. Before we start, here are a few things to think about . 

You are not expected to know all the answers when it comes to the N word and this article won’t give you all the answers either.  It’s a complex issue and telling your child not to say that word, ‘because it’s wrong’ probably isn’t going to be enough, at best they’ll just stop saying it in front of you but they won’t have any further understanding of your desire to stop them using it. It will help you immensely if you educate yourself so that you can have informed discussions with your child or children. 

It is important to recognise that racism exists and that racism is more than name calling or the N word itself. It’s important to also understand that it’s not about you or your child being accused of being a racist or that you come from a racist background. It’s about understanding the issues better and exploring the N word in the context of racism and how racism pervades our lives, from beauty standards to the visibility and depiction of people in everyday society and  the way it affects how people live, from the jobs they can get to their personal wellbeing and sense of safety. 

It might help when talking to younger children to have some of the following ‘equipment’ to hand:

  • A world map or a globe
  • An image of a ship carrying captured Africans who would become enslaved 
  • Some household items such as cotton, coffee, sugar, tropical fruits (like pineapple or mango)

Remember, this article does not and cannot give you all the answers; we can’t say categorically that this article is even “correct”, it is an article expressing our view only. Further, although this article aims to assist when talking to children and young people about the N word, at times it is quite in-depth with a view to supporting you. In places you may need to simplify or break it down further.

If your child uses the N word, don’t panic. Use this as an educational opportunity. Ask them: 

    • If they know what the word means?
    • Why they said it? 
    • Use questioning and examples, this is a discussion, not a lecture, get them to think and come up with the answer themselves  
    • Explain the potential consequences on other people
    • Explain the potential consequences to them – hate crime, criminal record

We also recommend the following resource which you may want to listen to either before or after reading this article but perhaps before tackling a discussion with your child A History of the N Word.

Historical Context

A good starting place is understanding the history of the N word. We appreciate a full history lesson won’t hold every kid’s attention, but it might help you if we set the history out and you can then get creative as to how you tell it to your 3 year old, 6 year old, 10 year old, teenager and so on. 

The transatlantic trafficking of enslaved people (commonly known as the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade) began around 400 years ago. Black people were taken from their birth place on the African continent and sold into slavery by white people from the New World (America) and from European settlers (places like England, Portugal and Spain). The New World had resources that could potentially make them and their European counterparts extremely rich but they needed people to work for them on Caribbean islands and places like Brazil in South America in order for this to happen.

The Caribbean was a long way from Africa, so to get Black people there they took them on ships; these ships were called ‘Slave Ships’. In England, the ships would leave from ports like Liverpool, Bristol and Whitehaven and sail to West Africa where they would trade goods such as beads and weapons in exchange for human beings. In other parts of Europe the ships would also sail to West Africa and throughout the whole of the African continent too. Once the ships were filled to beyond capacity with their human cargo, they would set sail for the Caribbean and the Americas. This voyage was known as the “Middle Passage”. During this journey, those captured would be separated from other family members, packed into ships as closely as sardines and left to defecate where they lay. They were sexually and physically abused, chained, shackled and made to endure the most horrific journey across the Atlantic to their destination. 

An illustration showing a cross section of a ship transporting enslaved people. Source: Musee d’Histoire de Nantes.

On arrival there they were sold like cattle to White plantation owners of cotton, sugar, coffee and tobacco. Whilst they were called plantation owners, they also owned these people who became their slaves. So in reality these plantation owners were slave owners. The conditions for those who became enslaved were indescribable and for those who survived the journey of the Middle Passage, life didn’t get much better than what they had already been through, a daily fight for survival in a world that didn’t even recognise them as human, merely a possession. These enslaved people nevertheless survived, had children who were also born into slavery and this never ending cycle continued until (and in many instances even after) the abolition of slavery.

Depiction of European traders of enslaved people, 1856.

Slave owners called those they enslaved “Niggers”. They had power over these people to whom they subjected unmentionable atrocities upon. They justified the treatment they meted out by saying these people were less than human and they used this word, amongst many others, as an insult, a weapon to hurt, oppress and break them.

The history of the word when traced does not appear to have one single origin; many suggest it stems from the Latin word ‘niger’ meaning Black and became the noun ‘Negro’ in English and negro was the colour black in Spanish, whereas  in France, the word became ‘negre’. In Portugal, like Spain, the word ‘negro’ was used and it was said to describe those with no soul – supporting the belief that only a non-human would have no soul, so Black people could not be human. No matter what its origin, as the trafficking of enslaved people grew and we hit the early 1800s, the word was firmly established as a derogatory one. It carried with it much of the hatred and disgust directed toward Black people and historically it defined, limited, made fun of and ridiculed all Black people. It was a term of exclusion, a verbal reason to oppress. Whether used as a noun, verb, or adjective, it strengthened the stereotype of the lazy, stupid, dirty, worthless nobody. A non-human nobody to do with as you please. There was and remains power in that word. 

How does it feel to be called a Nigger? 

You can never be truly prepared for being called that word. And you can guarantee that each and every one of us who has been called it, remembers every single time it happened. Being called a nigger is mental abuse, it is racial trauma and yes it hurts. Talking about it is painful. You are often left bewildered, disbelieving and incapable of fully comprehending. Whether it’s the neighbour next door, the girl on the hockey pitch, the teacher in your classroom, a stranger hurling abuse from a car or the old man who mumbles it under his breath every morning as you pass him on your daily route – it hurts. Even hearing it on re-runs of old movies, or TV and radio programmes invokes that pain. It’s hard to describe how it feels, but here are some short stories and quotes from Black people about their experiences of being called the N word:

“I had a manager say the word in front of me whilst at work. For context they were saying that it doesn’t bother him if people say it or the F word (the insult often used for those of the LGBTQ+ community) He’s a white gay man. It made me feel upset, humiliated, uncomfortable and disappointed.”

 

“I was playing rounders at school in PE, aged about 17. It was a game I enjoyed, a lovely day, I was with friends rather than feeling isolated in classes (like I usually did). It was my turn to bat. I hit the ball and ran, first post, second post, then just as I hit the third post, the girl there caught the ball and slammed it down on the post, shouting: ‘Out Nigger’. I’d never had any issues with her before. I went numb. I just looked at her and walked off. She, on the other hand, was absolutely mortified. She hadn’t been expecting to say it and even came up to me to apologise. But I didn’t have anything for her, I couldn’t feel anything at that point. I accepted the apology and carried on. But I remember the sound of those words even now. It’s not the only time I’ve been called it, but I think it was worse because it was so casual for her but she messed up and said it to the wrong person. She outed herself, I suppose. And because she apologised I had to be ok. I was one of the only Black people in my school.”

 

“It kinda takes your breath away. It’s a shock. Brutal. Like being kicked or punched in the gut. You feel shame, embarrassed, unprepared and unable to find your voice to respond. The shame only intensifies when you realise no one else is going to speak up for you either.” 

 

“I was walking down the road going into town when someone screamed it out of their car window . I was shaken, like someone had slapped me in the face which left me feeling a bit fearful.”

Ask your child to think about the above. We have made each of these quotes into a printable version HERE which you can use as a tool to discuss this issue with them

Encourage them to think about a time when someone may have said something horrible about them, or a member of the family. How did it make them feel ?  

Ask them if they still think it’s ok to use the word?  

And for your part, ask yourself, is it ok to make excuses for them? “They didn’t mean it” “They didn’t understand” 

But Black people say it all the time in rap songs or to each other, so what’s wrong with me saying it too?

This is an often heard response to the use of the N word. Now that we have the historical context in terms of where the word came from, let’s look at how it is used in songs, films, comedy and so on.

It’s fair to say that the N word was reborn into popular culture from around the early to mid eighties. The likes of Public Enemy used the word openly, having re-claimed it from its colonial roots, in the hope of lessening or at least eliminating its sting and changing it to “nigga” and This was followed by the likes of socially conscious NWA (Niggas with Attitude).

By the early 2000s it had become hard edged, streetwise and hip to use the now ‘trendy’ version of the word in America. We saw it used openly by Denzel Washington in Training Day and comedians like Chris Rock and Chris Tucker used it frequently in their acts. Huge debates about the use of the word (whether it be Nigger or Nigga) abound in America and you can read many articles and blogs about whether it should be used at all and if it is used who should be allowed to use it and when. Whether you agree or not about the use of the word (and whether by Black or non-Black communities), it’s clear that in America, it is impossible to separate it from the brutality into which that word was born and the close connection older generations at least, still living there, have with it; making it impossible to sever it from its core. 

Public Enemy and So Solid Crew

But what about here in the UK? Can the same arguments be used as those put forward by our brothers and sisters in America? Here, posses like So Solid Crew and Akala use it frequently, following in the footsteps of their American counterparts.

In Akala’s book, Natives, he talks about the resurgence of the word. He explains there is no doubt that Black music here in the UK during the early era of hip hop was heavily influenced by Black American culture and it was this that empowered him to use the word, looking up as he did to artists like Chuck D and Flava Flav (Public Enemy).

Akala and his book ‘Natives’

However, he freely admits to feeling uncomfortable having crowds of young White people chanting the words back at him at sound clashes and said it felt ‘fake and destructive pretending it was a term of endearment [here in the UK]’ and in time he (like Richard Pryor) rejected the use of it. His view is that even in the American context it has become ‘gimmicky and divorced from the contexts of its birth’. 

Akala concludes that not only are we are not Black Americans, we, like those who argue a ‘reclaiming’ of the word from the eighties onwards, have no personal connection to the civil rights struggle in America (and we would add here to the struggle here in the UK too) or what that word means to those who lived with it on a daily overt basis; from being worked like beasts of burden, red-lined, segregated, executed by law enforcement, experimented on by medical science, exhibited in zoos, bombed by their own government, had their towns torched by terrorists to having to fight for almost a century to rid society of the scourge of segregation. It is impossible to fully comprehend the pain attached to that word for many. At its core, the word has always been about power – the power White people held over Black people for centuries. 

Discuss music and the way the word is associated with centre genres with your child; we would recommend that even if heard in a song, the word is not repeated. Instead of singing along, ask them to consider what the word really means and to think about whether it is ok or not to say it and whether they feel comfortable saying it.

The way the word is used in the media and beyond

A 2014 study found that the word was used 500,000 times a day on Twitter (link here). On social media the word is sometimes used as a slur, sometimes as seen above, in a so called ‘empowering’ way. 

Whether slur or otherwise, it’s worth thinking for a moment why this word has become an everyday term with no or little thought for its impact. Think about the following:

  • A White footballer uses the term towards a Black player on the opposing team – what are the consequences? 
  • A newsreader reads out the circumstances of a hate crime piece and uses the actual word the perpetrator used  (rather than its more acceptable N-word option)
  • Joe Rogan’s spotify podcast compilation where he uses the N word over seventy times 
  •  The word is one of the most commonly used racist slurs during hate crimes

Here’s a couple of other things to think about in relation to the N word. As you grow and develop your own knowledge around racism (and the word) you may find other examples that connect with your thoughts too.

  • One of the last words Stephen Lawrence heard before he died was ‘nigger’ used in a racially violent way. That was in 1993; 
  • The slogan ‘if you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote labour’ won Conservative MP Peter Griffiths the Smethwick seat in the 1964 General Elections against the odds of the then Shadow Foreign Secretary and the national trend in favour of labour at the time

What about if it’s used in a book, perhaps one being read at school as part of the curriculum? Should we say it? Think about this short passage:

I grew up in a small city in the East of England and I was the only Black kid in my primary schools and one of two Black kids (at most) in my class all through high school. When we studied Of Mice of Men in high school, there was no care taken over the use of the n-word. Somehow there’s a pass when it comes to racial slurs in literature. The author wrote it and so we were all allowed to say it: end of story. And so I and the only other Black kid in my English class had to listen to our white teacher and our white classmates say that word countless times.

So how do we deal with the word in books? Ban those books? No, and neither do we have to re-write literature – in Huckleberry Finn for instance, the N word is said no less than 200 times. But just because the writer wrote it, doesn’t mean we have to say it.  Instead think about what we are trying to achieve – protecting Black kids from encountering multiple hate crimes in their English class or the rights of the oppressor to continue to oppress? Bear in mind too that it isn’t just about the use of the N word. So many of our books on the school curriculum are from a time when Black people were represented in a stereotyped, racist way. That is enough for a Black pupil to have to contend with. A barrage of N word utterances from classmates doesn’t need to be added to an already difficult and traumatic experience.

Conclusions

There can be no doubt that the history of the word is an attack on universal human dignity. It lurks around the edges of our lives and its violence remains. Whether used ‘fondly’ ‘absently’ or ‘violently’ it rationalises and justifies abuse and historically, it captures the hatred shown towards Black people and how anything is better than ‘being Black’.

We hope having read this article it has given you some food for thought, some options for further education and some tools to start discussions with your child or children. 

Let us know how you get on. We’d love to hear your feedback.