“If black people can say the N-word, why can’t I?” (and related delusions)

White people frequently deplore the asymmetrical “permissions” that seem to maintain between blacks and whites as it concerns various racially-charged speech acts. This reaction is, to paraphrase Bentham, bullshit on stilts. The following is my attempt to clarify the issues behind this observation.

Two distinct types of speech act bear exploring: (1) Referring to black folks by the N-word (hereafter rendered as “N—”); and (2) making certain statements critical of the black community. (By the latter I mean some variant of the idea that blacks are not tugging quite hard enough at their own bootstraps—e.g. they are too complacent in poverty, crime-prone, wedded to Affirmative Action and welfare, etc.)

The complaint, of course, is that blacks tend to “get away with” these speech acts—say, rappers using “N—” in their songs, or Bill Cosby’s cantankerous rant about the self-destructive features of the black underclass on his 2004 speaking tour. On the other hand, it is alleged, if whites said the same things publicly, they would incur charges of racism.

I will contend that both speech acts do dictate different rules for use by blacks and whites, and this is not in the least inconsistent or “unfair.” However, the reasons for the asymmetry in each case are distinct. I will treat them in turn.

(1) “If blacks can use the N-word with each other, why is it offensive when whites use it?”

The answer to this question is deceptively simple: These two groups are not using the same term. It is clear from actual patterns of usage that the traditional, derogatory use of “N—” has developed a second meaning that persists alongside the original. Granted, the two terms are spelled the same, and share a common etymology, but no matter. (Think of “hard” as in firm and “hard” as in difficult.) The meanings are distinct, and so are their rules for use.[2]

That a term could have group-asymmetrical rules for use should not be controversial. For instance, my siblings and I can use the term “Mom” to address my mother, but my mailman can’t. I can call my wife “baby,” but my neighbor better not. And nobody finds this the least bit unfair. “Mom,” “baby” and “N—” alike are relational terms. Using them properly depends on who the speaker and hearer are in relation to one another; and, since not everyone can stand in every relation to everyone else (my mailman simply cannot become my sibling), proper use depends on who they are.

When commonly used among blacks, “N—” is effectively shorthand for “my N—”; that is, “my fellow bearer of the distinct black American experience” (or some such). The asymmetry exists because, not sharing this experience, there is no obvious way for a white person to employ this term properly. He can, however, use it in the original, purely descriptive, derogatory sense: For him, nobody can be “my N—”; they can only be “a N—.” And calling someone a N— is always offensive, even (as is technically possible) when it is done among blacks.

This also shows why it is offensive to mandate, as my white father did of the integrated high school homeroom he led, that “If I can’t say it, they can’t say it.” If “N—” means something akin to “my fellow traveler,” banning it deprives an oppressed group of a term of solidarity.[2] This would be at least as bad as telling my father he couldn’t call his male church-mates “Brother such-and-such” because non-Christians couldn’t do the same (though white Southern Baptists are hardly an oppressed group).

(2) “If blacks can criticize the black community, why is it racist when whites do?”

The second type of speech act is more complex. For one, blacks can’t always “get away with” this any more than whites; for instance, Bill Cosby took considerable flak for his words. But the asymmetry is still there: Cosby was by and large not charged with being racist; however, whites making similar criticisms often earn this charge.

Many white people take this as evidence of a sinister contradiction. Two observers summarize the issue as follows on a video post:

[If] a white person making exactly the same criticism of African-Americans [would] automatically be a racist [while a black person would not]…that would imply that the truth of a statement about a certain group is dependent on the race of the person making the statement, as opposed to the inherent truth of that statement itself.

This argument, I contend, is deeply flawed. We can agree that different speech rules for different races implies that something about a statement is “dependent on the race of” the speaker. But it hardly follows that this ‘something’ has to be the truth of that statement. This would only follow if truth-value were the only feature of language. Yes, a statement can only be true or false; but the use or application of statements—discourse—can be so much more. Discourse brings an ethical dimension to bear: In addition to true or false, it can be good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate, productive or unproductive (even counterproductive)—and the list goes on. No, truth doesn’t change when speakers change, but other values do. And these values can affect what “can” and “can’t” be said every bit as much as truth and falsity.

In other words, being true is simply not enough to justify a speech act. On reflection, it is surprising anyone could doubt this: Clearly, I cannot stand up and repeatedly scream “two plus two equals four!!!” during the reading of a dead relative’s eulogy. No doubt the statement is true—but the act is a problem. While that speech act makes me boorish and insensitive, the same statement used differently (an elementary math lecture, perhaps) could be fine.

As we saw with the N-word, not every person can perform every speech act. I can say, “Hello, Mom” to my mother, but you can’t. You can mouth the same statement, but the act wouldn’t amount to a proper greeting. For another example: At the above funeral, it would be very appropriate for close friends to say nice things about the deceased. But someone who had exploited, abused and talked poorly about him in life “can’t” stand up and make the same speech. Again, he could utter the words, but their insincerity would ensure that the act they are used for is not a proper eulogy.

Clearly then, what makes a speech act OK is partly about who the speaker is. His identity can determine what he “can” and “can’t” say. (And this identity is partly about the relation he bears to the hearer).

I will argue that this has everything to do with the racial asymmetry we are discussing. To do this, a digression is necessary.

(a) The psychology of accepting unsavory beliefs about oneself

The following points set up the argument:

1. To accept a belief, one must first consider it; these are two distinct steps.

2. Every consideration is risky; it burns up precious time and cognitive and emotional resources. Plus, when what is being considered is something bad about oneself, one risks pain and shame if it turns out to be true—the greater pain and shame the greater the “bad” being considered. Therefore, to seriously consider something, it must hold some initial promise. It must appear to be “worth” the work and risk.

3. With most beliefs, the stakes are so low, the risk and investment so small, one can afford to enter the consideration stage casually. Asking black folks to entertain that they are complicit in a cultural pathology is not such a case. First, the idea is not self-evident; it is “large” and complex; it is extremely counter-intuitive and cuts against the instinct to think well of oneself and those one loves. Second, the emotional stakes are damn near existential. Serious consideration would require a time-consuming, soul-searching wrangle, the sort of which one undergoes in the course of therapy. Therefore, entering this process will be justified only if the belief holds strong advance promise of being true.

4. Of course, something about the proposed belief has to make it seem promising. Theoretically, a number of things could do this: The idea could just make sense on its face, or something about the speaker or method of communication could convey authority and credibility.

5. But black people have heard it all before. If the message is true, its truth alone hasn’t been enough to make the advice “stick.” Thus, the surface content of the critique—the statements themselves—will not justify serious consideration by black folks.

6. Only the context in which the statements are delivered—the speech act using them—could hold this promise. This means either the old message must be presented in a new way, or by a speaker with some special credibility.

7. It is unlikely that white people will find a radically new way of saying the same thing—partly because (as we shall see) it is unlikely that the mode of communication was the problem in the first place. Therefore, credibility—who the speaker is or appears to be—will be key.

8. The persistence of white racism makes it practically impossible that a white person could carry the credibility needed to compel serious consideration of the belief in question on the part of black folks.

* * *

The last point is the least self-evident, so I will argue for it separately. Thus, the next step is to demonstrate the persistence of white racism; then, how this connects to the rest of the argument.

(b) The white critic is likely to be racist because white people are likely to be racist

I can’t consider every single facet of racism here. For now, I will suggest that white people tend to fear blacks and view them as aggression-prone—and that this fear is irrational. This is not all it means to be racist, but will suit our purposes.

Thirty-five years of social science confirms this thesis. Tim Wise, anti-racist author and activist, catalogued this data in the wake of the Henry Louis Gates arrest flap. Drawing from his article, we can summarize the results of this research as follows:

* Whites tend to fear blacks. One study hooked participants to an MRI scan and flashed images of faces to them. A black face shown even subliminally triggered the part of the brain that processes fear and anxiety (the amygdala) far more than a white face.

* Whites tend to view ambiguous conduct as (more) aggressive when performed by a black person than the same conduct when performed by a white person. A study divided participants into two groups, with each shown a video of a black and white actor arguing. The videos were identical, except in the one shown to whites, the black actor shoved the white actor; in the video shown to blacks, the white man did the shoving. The action was identical in force, etc. Three out of four whites reported the “black shove” as aggressive or violent, while few whites (or blacks) saw the same “white shove” this way.

* Whites tend to manufacture false memories of aggressive behavior by blacks. One study read the facts of criminal assault cases to mock jurors. Days later, large majorities of white participants recalled blacks in the stories as committing aggressive conduct, even when this conduct never took place; they were far less likely to recall whites in the stories as behaving aggressively, even when they were.

* Whites tend to disproportionately presume guilt on behalf of black suspects. One study screened TV news reports of criminal activity in which the skin tone of each perpetrator was digitally altered. Large majorities of whites were more likely to remember the perpetrator’s race when the accompanying image was black; often, they misremembered the perpetrator as black when he wasn’t! Another study found that whites were far more likely to presume guilt when shown a mug shot of a black suspect than a white one, even when the facts of the case were identical.

And most importantly,

* These fears are not idle; they affect the way whites act: A study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology used a video simulation to test reaction to hostile threats. Participants identified guns much faster when carried by blacks than by whites. They misidentified benign objects like tools as guns more often when carried by blacks than whites. Whites proved far more likely to draw upon and shoot unarmed blacks engaged in benign behavior than armed whites who were engaged in menacing behavior.

* * *

I would hope it the irrationality of these tendencies is self-evident. However, some “rational racists” argue that these fears are justified due to a greater propensity toward crime on the part of blacks. The figures they cite are always due to a combination of overpolicing, overprosecution, and outright poor accounting. For now, I will respond that, even on the cooked stats, the likelihood that a given black person represents a criminal threat in a given exchange is quite nearly zero. This in itself makes the fear irrational—and therefore racist.

* * *

Here is the upshot of all this: Again, for blacks to seriously consider what these critics are alleging, the credibility of the critic is key, as the message is not new. Something about the identity of the messenger will have to make the difference.

There is a high statistical likelihood that a given white critic of “stereotypical black failings” is racist. This creates a classic conflict of interest: The critic’s audience simply cannot know if his message is borne of sincere concern (which can certainly coexist with subconscious racist ideas), or simple racism.

Our video hosts, along with many white observers, cast the issue as whether a white person is “automatically…a racist” when he criticizes the black community. But this is something of a strawman; we should say instead: The conflict of interest makes it unclear how to tell whether or not the critique is racist. That is, it makes it impossible to tell that it isn’t racist.

A couple things follow: First, it is perfectly sensible to ask whether “the same” criticism is racist when it comes from a white person rather than a black person. Indeed, given the social science, it probably is. Second, it is rational for blacks to dismiss these criticisms when they come from whites, given the probability that the critics are racist. In this sense, the criticism becomes effectively racist. That is, for purposes of serious consideration, it is rational to treat it as such. For the same reasons, it is rational to dismiss criticism from someone we know is probably motivated by jealousy, sadism, a family feud, or a vindictive effort to get back at us for criticizing them first—if again all we are going by is the messenger’s credibility.

The reverse also holds. If one’s audience has good reason to assume he is merely speaking out of jealousy, sadism, vindictiveness, etc., one bears a responsibility to keep quiet—even if he is not in fact sadistic, jealous, etc., and even if he is saying “true” things. In that person’s mouth, the statement is functionally indistinguishable from a sadistic (etc.) attack. The same goes for racism. And this is why whites “can’t say it.” One ought not to put black people in a position where they all but have to take something as racist. One should no more do this than he should make openly racist comments.

* * *

Postscript: I have been writing on the assumption that white criticisms of blacks are true. This was only for the sake of argument. I would like to stress that these critiques aren’t true. There is no evidence of a cultural pathology whereby blacks remain an underclass due to their own lack of motivation, penchant for hands-outs, proneness to violence, or anything else in their culture or DNA. The research always suggests that a lack of meaningful, secure, dignified, long-term economic (and other) opportunities in urban sectors causes higher rates of unemployment among blacks, leading to higher rates of some negative welfare indicators.


[1] I should say: The traditional, derogatory usage of “N—” has developed at least one other meaning beyond the original. There is a neutral use, used simply to make reference to fellow black persons, as well as a more affectionate one, typically used with a possessive, for those black (and occasionally non-black) persons endeared to the speaker. Also: What I’ve called the second usage is sometimes rendered as “N—a” or “—ah” rather than “N—er.”

[2] One is free to disagree that blacks constitute an “oppressed group.” But this for another post.