Editor’s Note: David A. Love is a writer and commentator based in Philadelphia. He contributes to publications including Atlanta Black Star, WHYY and Al Jazeera. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidALove. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
The debate over the n-word has returned, as a 2011 video featuring Chris Rock and Louis C.K. discussing the term resurfaced over the weekend. The exchange between the comedians raises questions about the role that white and black people play in perpetuating the n-word and its racist history.
In the “Talking Funny” video clip, Rock and Louis C.K. are accompanied by Ricky Gervais and Jerry Seinfeld. Louis C.K. says one of his favorite Rock jokes is, “when a black guy gets rich, it’s countdown to when he’s poor again.” And Rock replies, “He’s the blackest white guy I f*cking know.”
“You’re saying I’m a n****r?” Louis C.K. asks.
“Yes, you are the n****rest fucking white man I have ever met,” Rock replied. Although Louis C.K. and Gervais – who also used the word – were amused, Seinfeld appeared uncomfortable, offering that “I wouldn’t use it anywhere,” seemingly in reference to the n-word.
Louis C.K. then said, referring to himself and Rock, “we say n****r on stage.”
The video clip reminds us that racism remains a complex and challenging part of American life. The n-word, in particular, has a troubling and nuanced past. While racism is something that more people in society need to discuss and address, the n-word is a different story.
In many ways, the n-word is highly contextualized. On the one hand, the word has been used for hundreds of years as a symbol of repression, a weapon of white slave masters, colonizers and segregationists to dehumanize people of African descent, to make them feel as if they are less than, slaves or simply the “other.”
In short, the word embodies hate and trauma. If you are African-American and a white person has called you the n-word within the context of a racist assault, as I have experienced, you know the feeling of rage that races through your heart – the sense that you have been violated and denigrated.
On the other hand, some black people have seized ownership of a tool of oppression and turned it on its head – taking a word that symbolizes racial hatred and degradation, and rebranding it as a gesture of love and respect. Think of comedian Larry Wilmore at the 2016 White House Correspondents Dinner, when he called President Barack Obama “my n*gga.”
Which brings us back to comedians. Comedians generally enjoy more leeway on race and other controversial issues, as their art often becomes a powerful tool to illuminate subjects in ways that other professions are unable.
Still, using the n-word is fraught with danger for white comedians, in particular. Take Bill Maher, who used the word on his HBO talk show during a 2017 interview with Republican Sen. Ben Sasse. When Sasse told Maher, “We’d love to have you work in the fields with us” in Nebraska, Maher responded, “Work in the fields? Senator, I’m a house n*****.” Maher apologized the following week, with Ice Cube on hand to take him to the woodshed for an intervention. Ice Cube explained why Maher’s use of the word was a problem. “It’s like a knife, man. You can use it as a weapon or you can use it as a tool. … It’s not cool because when I hear my homie say it, it don’t feel like venom. When I hear a white person say it, it feel(s) like that knife stabbing you, even if they don’t mean to.”
Also appearing on the show was Symone Sanders, former press secretary for Sen. Bernie Sanders, who weighed in on Maher’s use of the term “house n*****” as being offensive to black women. “As a white person in America, you would’ve been the master, the slave owner. … It was mostly black women who were enslaved in the house, who were raped, who were beaten daily, day in and day out,” Sanders said. “They endured physical and mental abuse. For a lot of people in America, that was like slap in the face to the black community, particularly to black women.”
Because of the history of the n-word, and because we live in a world where certain groups of white people continue to use it to objectify black people, the word is off limits to white people – yes, even comedians. It’s a point that Seinfeld clearly understood in the video.
But not all criticism should be reserved for the white comedians. Rock rightly has faced condemnation for failing to call out Louis C.K. For example, Jemele Hill tweeted, “I know black folks who are completely comfortable with white people saying the n-word in their presence. Have had to tell a few white folks that I’m not that black person. Still it says something the only person who was uncomfortable was Seinfeld.”
Perhaps some white people will be confused about the outrage over the n-word, especially when they see Rock and other black people who are seemingly fine with non-white people using it, but they should remember that in general – and this part is key – black people have told white people they no longer have the right or “privilege” to use America’s most potent, racially-charged and baggage-laden word.
We live in a nation that fails to educate the public and address the racism that gave birth to it, so even in the safe space of comedy, free speech has limitations, and consequences in the public sphere. If black people are telling you it’s not only not funny but deeply offensive, perhaps you should listen.
I agree that Rock should not have participated in the n-word laugh fest. In fact, he should have used the occasion as a teachable moment – to school his fellow white comedians on their misguided ways. He should have said that it’s problematic for white people to use the n-word because it denigrates people of color and stirs up a painful history, and perhaps even more frighteningly, the prospect of a painful future.
Because one thing is clear: if black people aren’t their own advocates, few others will be.
Note: The piece has been updated to reflect that the ‘black guy gets rich’ joke is one of Chris Rock’s.