The N-Word

After yet another incident in which the use of the N-word by a White person against a Black person featured prominently, I thought I would share this recent reflection.  I understand if you are not able to read any further.  For those who proceed past this point, thank you.

I recently had a conversation with my 13-year-old in which she summarized the position that resides somewhere in me about the N-word.  She said, “I wish there was an equivalent word that when I said it would make White people feel the pain and trauma that word causes.”  But then she said, “I have heard that word so often that I have learned to desensitize that part of me where that word hits.”  We were having this conversation as part of a small group of young people who had just recently had the word launched at them from a passing vehicle as they were playing in a neighborhood not far from mine.  Two of my children were in that group.  My 21-year-old from my wife's previous marriage is of East Indian descent.  The word was hurled at him, specifically.  I arrived on the scene shortly afterwards and I could see distress on the face of this young man who had never had this experience.  The word had received frequent usage within his peer group in high school, but he had never been on the receiving end of its most evil intentions.  My 13-year-old, on the other hand, had lived this experience earlier this year and had already created the requisite emotional shield.  She shared that within her peer group, it was a word in frequent use, originating mainly from her White friends.  She had quickly processed her powerlessness at controlling its usage around her and resolved to never allow it to penetrate.  The older of the two children was suddenly brought to the beginning of that journey and even though he is not Black, its usage towards him created an impression that as a non-White he has already been ascribed the "qualities" of a “N…..”.

Growing up in Trinidad, I did not have a positive association with the word.  The two major people groups, East Indians and Blacks, had equally derisive epithets for each other, one of which was “N….”.  Black people (and other racial groups) who wanted to be derogatory towards East Indians used the colonial relic of “coolie”.  Both words were equally devastating to the recipient and connotated similar stereotypical images.  Through exposure to American media and Black music as a young man, I was therefore intrigued by the way the word “N….” had been repurposed by the Black American diaspora.  Its usage, signified by the removal of the “er” at the end and replacement with an “a” (or “ah”), seemed to signal an exchange for the sake of endearment.  It appeared to be the only response possible to the perpetuity and pain of the original epithet. 

For me, in whatever context, the word is derogatory and like my 13-year-old I have erected a shield of protection around that most sensitive part of me to which it is directed.  I feel the powerlessness of never seeing it eradicated from the lexicon.  I have experienced the frustration of attempting to communicate the underlying pain to well-meaning school officials.  There is no feeling of feebleness like the inability to protect my children.  My only recourse is to normalize the shielding process with them and hope that society’s majorities, at some point, outlaw the usage of the word “N….” and its derivatives.

As a person of color, I have come to expect two types of reaction from members of the American racial majority whenever the issues of racial hatred and racism become current.  The first type of reaction is one of anger and advocacy.  It is one that intentionally seeks me out and asks about my mental state and how I have been affected.  It is a loving response that acknowledges the connectedness that causes racial pain to radiate through minority communities.  In my experience, this response has been rare.

The second type of response is one that espouses the White individual’s developed sense of fairness and equality.  It ascribes idiocy to the “lone individuals” who perpetrate hate crimes while downplaying the need for exploratory discussion around the reality of systemic racism.  It limits racism to the individual.  Again in my experience, the majority of respondents fall into this category. Even though the intent is wholesome, the result is a deliberate obscuring of a wound.  The pain that people of color feel, whenever these incidents occur, goes unnoticed, unacknowledged, and invalidated by their White work colleagues and social acquaintances.

If you are White and you have read this far, you may be wondering “what then do I do?”.  Many White people are afraid of creating offense when talking about racial issues.  They are also afraid that they will be seen as blameworthy, culpable, and responsible for the pain.  This is understandable.  Like anything else, however, taking a risk to ask the question “how are you coping with this recent news?” opens up an opportunity.  It creates a pathway for healing and acknowledges the fear, frustration, sadness, anger, depression, anxiety, ambiguity and general turmoil that is triggered in a person of color when the newsfeeds are flooded with acts of racial hatred and injustice.

Take the risk and become a part of that rare breed…

If you are interested in additional ways that you can become part of the bridge that spans across the racial divides in our community, contact us at

1 comment

  • This is a societal reality and not really a fact it is only in the American reality context is this quality and intensity of the situation so grave. In the Caribbean context, for example, the severe feelings expressed in the US are not known in my view, the intensity of the social relationship has to do with the intensity of the economic reality. ( I can explain further).

    Dr Daphne Phillips

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published