While speaking at Evanston Township High School in Illinois to promote his recently released book We Were Eight Years In Power, Ta-Nehisi Coates addressed a question from the audience about why white people can’t use the N-word but black people can, particularly in rap music and other media.
“I don’t know what to do when I hear my friends use this word in a song, I don’t know what to do when it’s all the time,” a white girl says to Coates as she presents the question to them.
From there Coates notes how people a part of certain cultures or groups can say certain words that others can’t, and then provides two examples: one of his wife calling him “honey” and how problematic it would be if another woman referred to him as such, and how awkward it would be if he referred to his father by his nickname, Billy.
“That’s because the relationship between myself and my dad is not the same as the relationship between my dad and his mother and his sisters who he grew up with,” Coates said. “We understand that.”
The author then references how his wife uses a certain a word to refer to her friends that he would not use for obvious reasons.
“My wife, with her girl friend, will use the word ‘b**ch,'” Coates said. “I do not join in. You know what I’m saying? I don’t do that. I don’t do that. And perhaps more importantly, I don’t have a desire to do it.”
“The question one must ask is why so many white people have difficulty extending things that are basic laws of how human beings interact to black people,” Coates said before expounding further:
“When you’re white in this country, you’re taught that everything belongs to you. You think you have a right to everything…You’re conditioned this way. It’s not because your hair is a texture or your skin is light. It’s the fact that the laws and the culture tell you this. You have a right to go where you want to go, do what you want to do, be however — and people just got to accommodate themselves to you.”
“So here comes this word that you feel like you invented. And now somebody will tell you how to use the word that you invented. ‘Why can’t I use it? Everyone else gets to use it. You know what? That’s racism that I don’t get to use it. You know, that’s racist against me. You know, I have to inconvenience myself and hear this song and I can’t sing along. How come I can’t sing along?'”
“The experience of being a hip-hop fan and not being able to use the word ‘ni**er’ is actually very, very insightful. It will give you just a little peek into the world of what it means to be black. Because to be black is to walk through the world and watch people doing things that you cannot do, that you can’t join in and do. So I think there’s actually a lot to be learned from refraining.”