Lots and lots of young white people listen to rap music. Of course, that has to be surprise of the century—no, the millennium. Right! And it is equally surprising that planes fly in the air. So the scenario that I presented to my classes (16 February) is the following: You are a white person in car with four other blacks; and you are all listening to one of your favorite rap artist, say N.W.A. and their song “Straight Outta Compton”. While listening to and enjoying the song, every one’s head is bobbing in just the right way. Everyone is so down with music. And then it happens: the N.W.A. rappers sing the n-word.
According to current convention, while the black folks in the car can sing along with N.W.A and vocalize the n-word, the white person in the car becomes immediately silent. Countless white individuals have recounted this scenario to me. What follows are my thoughts about the matter. Although I shall focus upon whites, my remarks also apply to other non-blacks such as Asians and Indians and Arabs.
The first thing to notice is that language is not static. In 1940, the very idea of the word “nigger” being part of a popular song would have made about as much sense as the claim that an airplane needs pepper in order take off successfully. Or, to take a different example, consider that in 1960, the word “shit” only had negative connotations. Back then, the utterance “You are the shit” could no more have been a compliment than the utterance “You are a genius” could have meant “You need to put on some deodorant”. Moving on: Who hasn’t heard Bernie Mac’s hilarious sketch using the word “mother fucker”? That sketch would have been impossible as recently as 1980.
None of us need like the way in which word-usage changes. It appears that Bill Cosby deplores the use of “nigger” in rap music. None of that, however, changes the reality that the use of the word “nigger” has changed considerably. But so has the word “shit”. And as just noted: Bernie Mac’s brilliant skit involving the word “mother fucker” would have been unthinkable a few decades ago. In 1940, it would have been ridiculous to say as an ever so sincere compliment “Leslie is so fucking brilliant”. But not in 2012, although the word “fuck”, as with the word “nigger” can still be used in a quite acerbic manner or vitriolic manner.
Well, here is an ever so simple and yet ever so profound truth. If the worse that any white person should ever do is sing the word “nigger” in a song that is being sung by rap artists, then in then in terms of race relations, between blacks and whites, the world is very nearly perfect. It is just plain silly to suppose that a white person is somehow being racist in uttering of the word “nigger” while singing along with a song in which is that very wrong is sung or uttered, as if the only reason why white people by rap or listen to rap music is so that they can take delight in hearing black people putting down black people by calling one another “nigger”. And make no mistake about black artists count on white people buying rap music, including rap music in which the word “nigger” is repeated countless times.
Now, to be sure, if it is permissible for whites to utter the word “nigger” when singing along with rap music, then it is possible that a white person might get tongue tied and say the word “nigger” when the white person meant to say something else.
But guess what? The point that I have just made applies equally to blacks. Moreover, not any black can get away with calling another black “nigger”. I have deliberately pronounced the word in lectures. But I have never called another black “nigger”. And guess what? There is probably an ice cube’s chance in hell that I could get away with doing so, although no one doubts for a moment that I am black person. So it is woefully dishonest to suppose that only white people can inappropriately use the word “nigger” by mistake or that there can never be an issue of impropriety when a black person uses the word nigger.
It is both hypocritical and immature for blacks to get uptight about whites singing the word “nigger” in a rap song. And this point holds all the more so when blacks have invited a white friend to join them and the blacks are playing rap music in the very presence of that white friend.
Let me put the point in a particularly forceful way. If I could not trust that my white friend is not being racist in singing the word “nigger” along with a rap song that I am playing in her or his presence, then that (a) white person should not be my friend in the first place, accordingly, (b) I am exercising very poor judgment in supposing that the white person’s character is worthy of my friendship.
Trust always involves risk. Just so, trust at its best is ever so nourishing. Trusting another is one of the greatest affirmations that one human being can offer to another. We who are black should not be so besotted with the pain of the racism of the past that we lose sight of the moral power we have in trusting those who are trustworthy.
Quite simply, it is dysfunctional for black people to play rap music replete with the word “nigger” in the very presence of their white friends and then hold that their white friends are are racist merely because the whites sing the word “nigger” along with the music.
© 2012 Laurence Thomas