Racism and the n-word are not the same thing.

The video above features Joe Scarborough and others making the claim that hip hop artists bear some responsibility for a bunch of University of Oklahoma fraternity members’ racist chant (surprisingly this show aired on MSNBC, the US’s allegedly left-leaning network). My immediate reaction to this was “I cannot even follow this argument. It bears absolutely no resemblance to the world in which I live”. If that’s your reaction, there’s nothing I will write here that you don’t already know. Feel free to navigate your browser ship to some other part of the Internet Sea. However, If your reaction is “I dunno I think Joe’s got a point”, well then hear me out.

You and Joe are both correct that black hip hop artists often use a form of the n-word. To be completely fair it’s often r-less, something like nigga, and they also happen to be members of the group who are targeted by the word.

But perhaps you’re still thinking to yourself, “Yeah but where’d those white boys learn this nasty, vile word from?” Of course, it’s a very real possibility that they actually learned it from their white families and friends. Let’s set that possibility aside for a moment, and entertain the possibility of hip hop corrupting our innocent white youth with the n-word (y’know, just for argument’s sake).

Here’s the problem with that claim. It rests on a conflation of racism with saying “bad words”, a conflation many (especially white) people tend to make. Now, I don’t want to suggest that the n-word is somehow innocuous. However, it’s miles away from being the most concerning aspect of those frat brothers’ nasty racist chant. Here’s their chant in its disgusting entirety (as quoted in this CNN article):

There will never be a ni**** SAE.
You can hang him from a tree,
but he can never sign with me.

Visually, CNN’s censoring of the n-word (with ****) makes it appear that it is the most disturbing aspect of this chant, the thing that’s likely to cause the most offense.

I disagree wholeheartedly. The most disturbing examples of racism in this are the following two ideas. The first is the chant’s commitment to excluding black people from the fraternity. The second is the indifference for black people’s lives that makes these frat brothers sound like they’re somehow on the fence about whether genocide is acceptable or not. Yeah. I dropped the g-bomb. No hyperbole. The chant literally references a series of events in which multitudes of black men and women were murdered because of their race. And these guys are gleefully leaning toward that being okay with them.

So here’s what Scarborough’s argument is missing. The systematic exclusion of black people is racism. The devaluing of black lives is racism. Sure, the n-word can be used as a shorthand for both of these things and more, but it’s just one of many byproducts of this ideology. The n-word appears in hip hop lyrics, but what you won’t find in those lyrics is the more disturbing ideological messages found in this chant, so it’s unreasonable to expect hip hop artists to take any responsibility for white fraternity members’ racism. Unless of course we’re talking about neo-Nazi hip hop. Those dudes have a lot to answer for.

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Posted in Language and race
One comment on “Racism and the n-word are not the same thing.
  1. Chandra says:

    I’m having trouble believing that clip didn’t come from Fox News. What an utter lack of discernment.

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