There’s a difference between calling someone a white supremacist and calling someone the “N-word.” To say they are the same is a false equivalent; this is not a “both sides” argument.
The N-word is rooted in a belief in white supremacy. It’s a racial slur used against people racialized as Black and so painfully powerful that it goes by a euphemism.
The word was created to keep people of African descent down; the other word, white supremacy, was created to justify giving Europeans the upper hand and the right to rule over those redefined as “people of color.”
Don’t listen to Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, who recently said that calling her a white supremacist is like calling an African American the N-word. This is not a war of words, but history and my memory still serve me well.
I was swiftly walking away from two or three young men racialized as white as a freshman at Buffalo State College in Buffalo, New York. I exited the number 20 city bus on Elmwood Avenue, and they got off with me.
The young men hadn’t said anything to me during the ride, but I instinctively knew that they were following me. I started to pick up my pace when I heard it. “Hey, n—!”
Said with a hard -er and the crushing weight of a familiar history, I wasn’t afraid — not yet. I reasoned that I just needed to get to my dormitory, Porter Hall, where other students could see me. I can still remember seeing students off in the distance and wondering if I would make it to where they were meandering.
I arrived at my dorm without being harmed — at least not physically. But hearing the word was its own kind of pain, its own kind of terror.
Once I reached my room, I called my mother, a child of the South, who said, “I told you those people don’t want you there.” That’s not what I needed to hear, but I knew that it was all that she could say.
Raised in a hyper-religious environment that didn’t prioritize post-secondary education as it was considered a threat to “the mind of Christ,” I had accepted that she wouldn’t be a companion on this educational journey. However, I decided that day that white supremacy wouldn’t stop me.
While linguistically reappropriated by some African Americans for intra-group usage, the word still rings clear as a threat to me. Casually thrown around by some members of this cultural group, the word has racist roots, and it shouldn’t be considered a sign of fraternity or as an indication of membership within a community.
Use of the N-word often meant physical violence and could result in the death of its target. It was a warning and a reminder of a social position beneath those racialized as white.
Before the derogatory and dehumanizing word reflective of underlying negative attitudes held towards people racialized as Black was repossessed by the African American community, it belonged to Latin, niger meaning “black.” It appears in the Spanish language, negro and again in French, nègre. In America, it became synonymous with negro and then Negro.
Slowly but surely, the word with a derogatory connotation became an identity. In 1619, “twenty negars” arrived on a Dutch man-o-war.
The N-word is historically, symbolically and physically violent. To say the word, even as a self-description, is controversial and, in some contexts, taboo because of the history of white supremacy.
I join with a group known as eradicationists, who believe the racial insult should be eliminated in all its variations from the English language — no matter its context. “The word n— to a colored person is a like a red rag to a bull,” Langston Hughes said. The N-word is also a tool of white supremacy.
“Masters pretended that slaves were simple-minded and childlike because it helped ‘to relieve themselves of the anxiety of thinking about slaves as men.’ In the centuries that followed — long after the official end of slavery — whites of all classes came to rely on language (and especially the use of pejoratives like the N word) in pursuit of such relief,” writes Jabari Asim, author of The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t and Why.
There is no comparable word in the English language for it. The N-word “is an opprobrious term, employed to impose contempt upon [Blacks] as an inferior race… [I]t flows from the fountain of purpose to injure,” wrote Hosea Easton in A Treatise on the Intellectual Character and Civil and Political Condition of the Colored People of the United States: and the Prejudice Exercised Towards Them in 1837.
The word does not come from a good place. “Easton averred that often the earliest instruction white adults gave to white children prominently featured the word [n—]. Adults were reprimanded for being ‘worse than [n—],’ for being ‘ignorant as [n—],’ for having ‘no more credit than [n—],’; they disciplined them by telling them that unless they behaved they would be carried off by ‘the old [n—]’ or made to sit with ‘[n—]’ or consigned to the ‘[n—] seat,’ which was, of course, a place of shame,” writes Randall Kennedy in [N—]: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word.
There is no equivalent. If white supremacist and the N-word are synonymous as Greene argues, then she should prove both sides of her argument by using them in a sentence.