When is it acceptable to use the n-word?

[Originally published in the Bay State Banner.]

It was the tweet heard ‘round the world — at least the portion of the world that pays attention to Twitter.

One weekend in early June, actress Gwyneth Paltrow tweeted a picture while onstage at Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “Watch the Throne” concert in Paris, with the caption “Ni**as in paris for real” (the asterisks are Paltrow’s).

It was a reference to the rap duo’s wildly popular song, “Ni**as in Paris.” And naturally, chaos ensued.

Twitter followers and random rap fans blasted Paltrow for using the n-word in her tweet, to which she responded, “Hold up. It’s the title of the song!”

Rap icons weighed in. Business mogul and hip hop pioneer Russell Simmons, who previously attempted to ban the n-word from rap music, came to Paltrow’s defense and said he knew her intentions were not offensive.

A Tribe Called Quest wordsmith Q-Tip pushed back, acknowledging that while Paltrow may not have meant harm, she should have apologized in light of the historical weight of the word.

Rap legend Nas gave Paltrow a “pass” because she’s “the homie,” she’s “cool,” and she’s a “real ni**a.”

Confused yet?

Maybe Paltrow’s choice of words was ill-advised; it’s certainly debatable. Maybe she should have apologized if she offended anyone, even though that wasn’t her intent. Maybe a white person can never publicly use the n-word, no matter how seemingly benign the circumstances, without creating a firestorm of controversy.

But by pointing the finger at Paltrow, we missed an opportunity to examine our own responsibility in the matter. Because as a community, we have actively invited a slip-up of Paltrow’s variety.

It’s no secret that many in our community have appropriated the n-word word as our own – in everyday speech, in rap songs, in rap song titles – and understandably so. It’s our effort to diffuse the word of its power and break its association to the worst violence, brutality and dehumanization this country has known.

But by employing “ni**a” so freely in our conversation and culture, we send mixed messages to those outside our community about how and when the word can be used.

By embracing this word as part of our lexicon and lifestyle, then crying foul when a white person – even one who is, in fact, palling around with a bunch of “ni**as in Paris” at the time – does the same, we create a confusing set of rules that even those within our community can’t agree on.

What’s the deal now? Can you say “ni**a” only if you’re black? Or do certain white people get a pass under certain circumstances, to be determined after the fact by a rapper to be named later?

Can white rappers such as Eminem, who has been called the n-word by other rappers, use the word to refer to himself or other rappers, if it is done on record?

Can white people use the word if they are singing along to a rap song that contains the word? Can white people write the word to reference a song title or song lyric, but only if the reference is explicitly set apart in quotes?

The questions could continue almost indefinitely. Clearly, the rules are not clear.

In the end, Paltrow’s blunder could be a lesson about ill-advised celebrity tweets, or it could be an opportunity for us to acknowledge the confusion we’ve created surrounding the n-word, and examine why we continue to include the word in our vocabulary.

Is it possible that by tossing around a word that has its roots in dehumanization, we are, to a degree, dehumanizing ourselves? Is it also possible that our frequent and casual use of the n-word is not an expression of intra-community love, but evidence of subconscious self-loathing?

Whether the word ends in ‘a’ or ‘er,’ it still speaks to the same brutal history. The uproar in response to Paltrow’s tweet proves that.

So if the word still has the power to offend under some circumstances, perhaps we should reconsider using it under any circumstances.

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