Why white people can’t use the n-word.

n_wordMuch of my political commentary really boils down to: Don’t be an asshole.

So, honestly, my personal go-to response to the very notion that white people occasionally get wrought up over the fact that they really-but-really should not say the n-word under any circumstances, “friendly” or not, is: Don’t be an asshole. Because seriously, how hard is that? Millions of people are telling you that when you use that word, it’s painful and offensive. That should, in a perfect world, be enough.

I mean, come on! The n-word isn’t even like, I don’t know, “bitch,” about which there is real disagreement among women. Millions upon millions of black folks are pretty clear on the fact that white Americans should never ever put that word in our mouths. Ever. “But they say it to each other,” you say? So the effing eff what. You are not them. The English language is positively chock-a-block with words — words that don’t carry the lash, and centuries of systematic terrorism, and the rending of families, and the continued devaluation of people who happen to be going about the business of Being Human While Black — that you can use with your black friends. I promise! Do.Not.Be.An.Asshole.

Alas, the world is not perfect, and “don’t be an asshole” isn’t really much of an argument. Indeed, the argument could be made that understanding why a particular behavior is asshole-y is pretty useful in ridding ourselves of said assholery — and as he so often does, Jay Smooth has our backs on this. Give him a listen, and tell all your white friends.

And don’t be an asshole.



  1. Why this is a difficult topic for some I don’t know.

    • It’s beyond me. When I got that one piece of threatening hate-mail for daring to write a letter to the editor in support of then-Senate-candidate Barack Obama and I had to read the letter out loud to the appropriate person at the USPS, she and I just spelled the word back and forth to each other. I can’t get it out of my mouth.

  2. Lise

     /  February 25, 2013

    Thank. You. Also, posted on my FB page. Great video.

  3. This question has been raised on more than one occasion by my students who think it’s a question of double standards (as video man says) and of ‘political correctness’ because they have little comprehension of a) history and b) language & context. I’ve ended up going into a complicated spiel about power & language & history… you’ve done it much more succinctly, and the video just polishes it off.

    I’ll use this next time if it’s ok with you.

  4. RosiesDad

     /  February 26, 2013

    Emily: I use Jay Smooth’s advice–and post the video in discussion groups whenever decorum breaks down–in the context of maintaining any civil conversation.

    I have close friends who are Black and the only context I would ever use the n-word is, for example, discussing why its prevalent use did not detract (IMHO) from Django Unchained. That said, Jay Smooth’s advice–if someone says something offensive, deal with what they said and not what you think they are–and yours–don’t be an asshole–are good lessons for maintaining civility. Especially in a world of electronic dialogue where the conventions of civility too frequently break down.

  5. RosiesDad

     /  February 26, 2013

    Also, he looks too white to use that word. (Yeah, I know he is of mixed racial heritage.)

    But he is a great communicator.

    • I’m not sure that “he looks too white” is a way we need to go. His father is black, and he identifies as black.

      • RosiesDad

         /  February 26, 2013

        Sorry, Emily, I was trying to make a funny.

        But on that–how silly are we as a society (and this is part of the problem) that if someone is racially mixed and part of that mix is African American, they are identified as Black? Tiger Woods, the President, Jay Smooth, etc, etc. It will be nice when we can identify first as people, regardless of heritage.

        • Michael Eric Dyson wrote something really wise about that idea, to the effect that that day can’t happen until “color suggests neither privilege nor punishment.”

  6. Snoring Dog Studio

     /  February 26, 2013

    There are very, very few instances when the word ought to be uttered at all. But people persist in their vain and lame attempts at coolness.

  7. Thanks so much for introducing me to Jay Smooth. This guy is eloquent, hits the nail on the head, and what else can I say? Just so SMOOTH in his message. Since reading this, I’ve been watching random videos by him for the last couple of hours. Thank you for that.

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