By Cayla Clements, Medill, Immigrant Connect
I’m sitting on my bed when I check my notifications on GroupMe – a mobile messaging app that would be obsolete if it weren’t for college clubs and groups. I’ve been in the “Black@NU ‘21” group since the beginning of my freshman year. It has been an anchor and active group for black students in my class to connect and socialize within and outside the chat.
The message I’m reading from my phone is startling. A student is asking, “Am I, as an individual of African origin, permitted to use the hard n-word?”
I freeze. A hot, angry pain begins to form in my belly and travel to my heart and head. My immediate thought is, No, never. That word should never be used. I watch the conversation unfold. The writer, whom I’ll call Jane, is quickly given a “no” by another student who explains that we “must respect the history and violence the people who came before us experienced.” Jane writes, “If I am of African origin, it’s my right” and wants to use the word around white people to make them uncomfortable and address the racism they are complicit in.
“White people will call anyone who isn’t white the N-word,” one student chimes in.
Another student writes, “But as someone who is not a descendant of African-American people whose ancestors have experienced slavery, what right do you have to reclaim the word?”
I wholly agree with another student who writes, “I’d like to say that the white man won’t ask if you’re a descendant of American slaves or African (non)slaves before he calls you a N—er.” The opening question stokes a heated and ultimately unconstructive conversation about being black in comparison to having African immigrant parents.
I agree that black American identity should not be construed differently depending on where your parents are from. However, as someone who doesn’t know my specific origins in Africa, n—er has always triggered a visceral reaction rooted in hurt because I do not know my distinct African heritage and have had experienced direct racism since I was a child.
I was first called a n—er in middle school by the younger brother of one of my friends at the time. They were both white. I was hitting serves against the gymnasium wall during volleyball practice and he asked me to pass him the ball. After I awkwardly stumbled to hand him the ball, he blurted out under his breath. It ended with “you n—er.” I froze in place as he walked away from me. I didn’t know what to say or do or think. As an 11-year-old, I was sensitive and cognizant and felt shame and distress over what happened. I never mentioned it to his sister or to anyone else. At the time I wasn’t aware enough to understand that the fault was in that person, and not in me. I’d been targeted with racism and microaggression before and many times after this instance.
I know my family’s roots only to the small country towns my grandparents were raised in. It will remain a mystery unless I dig into my genealogy, which for black Americans is difficult. My history and connection to my ancestors in Africa have been completely erased by slavery in the United States. Among black Americans, there is always a sense of connection with Africa. But the continent is much more than our motherland. It’s history-enriched for thousands of ethnic groups.
The opportunity to know the history of where I came from has been stolen from me. It’s a history I will probably never know because those before me were treated as less than human. All that’s left is the history of the treatment of black people since the creation of the United States, including the derogatory word n—er, and that’s why the word disgusts me. White people reduced my ancestors to the n—er, erasing their entire lives and histories in the process.
I eventually reached out to Jane privately and we shared our opinions. I told her how much the word n—er triggers emotional and generational trauma for me. I’ve only experienced the word in a derogatory manner, and by saying the word around white people, it will only give them more reason to say it colloquially.
James Baldwin is one of my favorite writers and expresses the black experience with an eloquence like no other. When he was interviewed on PBS’s “The Negro and the American Promise” in 1963, he said, “What white people have to do, is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a n—er in the first place, because I’m not a n—er, I’m a man, but if you think I’m a n—er, it means you need it.” Baldwin’s words speak to the core of what I believe the word n—er means in society.