Is the n-word overrated?

Examining the reasons why people say it, asking the UB community


Every time I ask my friends not to say “n---a,” I get the following responses: “Oh, you know I didn’t mean it that way,” “It’s part of the song so relax" or “I’m a person of color, so it’s OK.”

From a young age, I’ve been taught the n-word isn’t something to take lightly and if someone calls you that, stop it right away. 

Now, I’m not going to pretend I haven’t said the word, because I have. 

Yet, after hearing “The N-Word Songby Sha Stimuli, where he says “n---a” almost 50 times, I realized how overused and ridiculous the word has become. I made the decision to no longer say the word when I came to UB in 2018 and have not broken my promise. Knowing this –– and the mixed opinions on saying “n---a” –– I was determined to see if I was the only one who felt this way and asked random students on UB’s campus.

I started with black people.

“I didn’t start saying the word until last year because of the original meaning,” said sophomore biomedical sciences major, Naila Phillips.

She understands why rappers say it in music as it “goes with the flow” but isn’t comfortable hearing it in conversation. 

“Black people have owned the word,” Phillips said.

That’s something I hear every time I bring up this topic. 

Yes, it is acceptable –– and only acceptable –– for black people to use the word. However, whether you like it or not, no one can really own a word. 

For Phillips, it is always unacceptable for white people to say it. Even her “lit-est” white friend, who got the “n-word pass,” from her friends doesn’t say it, she said. 

I’ve asked all my friends regardless of race to stop saying the word around me. I don’t care why they want to use it or their reasons for thinking they can use it. I just don’t want to hear it. Some people argue that when black people use the word, it transforms from a slur to a form of endearment that takes the power from the oppressors. 

Whenever I hear “n---a” casually walking down the hall or when my friends say it to me, I have to remind myself that they are saying “n---a” and not n---ER.

Why is dissociating the two words so difficult?

“The truth is we can’t separate the one that ends with the ‘a’ from the one that ends with the ‘er’ because they are of the same roots,” said Mopelolade Oreoluwa Ogunbowale, an adjunct instructor in the African American Studies program.

Ogunbowale teaches hip-hop and social issues and, in the past, has taught courses on African gender studies. 

In her home country, Nigeria, natives would say “n---a” just like many black people here.

“When I was growing up in Nigeria, the n-word with the ‘a’ was fancy,” Ogunbowale said. “It was an expression of cool, it was an expression of the association of the black experience and it was also an association with that ‘hip-hop swagger.’”

Back home, it didn’t have any racist meaning for her, which is why she used to say it, too.

It wasn’t until she came to the U.S. that she realized the word has many meanings, not all of them good.

Yet, in her class, Ogunbowale says the word to problematize it and bring awareness to its history.

“I don’t want students to be afraid to engage the word historically or with its contemporary use in hip-hop, but I want students to be aware of the problems, of the baggage that word carries,” Ogunbowale said. 

To many, “n---a” is a term of endearment, but what does the word mean when black people use it against each other in an argument? 

At that point, isn’t it just as bad as the original word?

For Ogunbowale, the distinction is difficult and the word is still a racial slur no matter the tone because of its history. 

Personally, I am still trying to figure out how the black community claimed the word and changed its meaning. Regardless, I will never understand how non-black Hispanics got the pass to say “n---a” and why some white people think that it’s okay to say it when rapping to a song. 

Did they all of a sudden realize how hip the word was and want to join in on the fun? 

Unfortunately –– or maybe fortunately –– I wasn’t able to find a white person bold enough to say they casually say “n---a.” 

But it didn’t take long to find a white person who believes white people should never say the word. 

Julia Mole, sophomore computer science major, believes it is ignorant and “is totally inexcusable,” even when singing to a song.

From what I’ve heard, if a white person has a lot of black friends, if they hear it in a song, or get the “n-word pass,” they feel they automatically get to say the word.

That’s all it takes –– one person to start feeling entitled to start a chain reaction.

“In my opinion, one person doesn’t speak for an entire population,” Mole said. 

If we want change, then the change has to start within ourselves. We can’t keep expecting white people to not say the word if we are casually saying it ourselves. We need to set an example for those who clearly don’t understand why saying “n---a” isn’t something to take lightly. 

Whether we like it or not, “n---a” just has too much ugly history for it to be “reclaimed.” Many nationalities have racial slurs against them. But, do we hear any of them calling each other these slurs in public? 

No. Because the weight those terms carry is too much to bear. 

So forgive me if I can’t grasp the concept of taking back a demeaning word that has never been ours and forgive me if I don’t care that you are a person of color or if Ancestry.com said you are 2% black.

Because the word is a slur, regardless of who says it or how it’s spelled. 

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Alexandra Moyen is the assistant news editor and can be reached at alexandra.moyen@ubspectrum.com.