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Auntie SparkNotes: Should I Police My White Friend’s Language?

Dear Auntie,

I was Skyping with a very dear (white) friend of mine the other day and it seemed that he had no problem saying the n-word. Now, the two times he said it were in the context of 1) reading a meme out loud and 2) quoting rap lyrics, but I wasn’t about to give him a SJW lecture over Skype, especially since I wasn’t even sure if him saying it in those contexts was offensive. I guess what I’d like to know is: was him saying the n-word in those contexts okay? Should I even be bothered with policing what my white friend can or cannot say? If it’s not okay, how do I call him out in a constructive manner if he does it again?

I’ll be honest, Sparkler: not all these questions have easy answers. The question of when or whether it’s okay for a white person to say the n-word, particularly, is the subject of continual debate which isn’t going to be resolved anytime soon. Some folks believe that white people should never ever say that word in any context, no matter how innocuous or academic; others think that context makes all the difference between a neutral use of the word and a harmful one. So when you ask if it’s okay for your friend to read or sing that word aloud, the answer is that it depends on who you ask.

But since you asked me, here’s the deal: I’m of the opinion that context does matter, in that there is a fundamental difference between say, encountering the n-word in a book written in 1884, and having it angrily shouted at you on the street in 2016. And in your friend’s case, I think there’s probably a distinction to be made between “having no problem with the n-word” and “being a fan of rap music in which the n-word happens to be ubiquitous.”

And look: not everyone will necessarily agree with that, which is fine. We’re talking about a word with a particularly fraught and complicated history; it goes without saying that some will find it harder to tolerate than others, and that their feelings are valid. What’s important is that reasonable and decent people can still disagree on a question like this. Which brings us to your next question:

Should I even be bothered with policing what my white friend can and cannot say?

And unless your friend has solicited your input on this front, that one is easy: No, you shouldn’t. It’s not that you can’t ask him not to sing songs or tell you about memes that include the n-word, if hearing it is upsetting to you — but asking for that kind of consideration is a very different thing from policing a friend’s speech for failing to meet an external standard of wokeness. And scolding him for breaking an unwritten rule about What White People Cannot Say when he repeated the lyrics to a rap song written by somebody else? I’m going to gently suggest that you don’t want to go there — for the same reason that you wouldn’t want to be scolded for all the dozens of things you might do that cause no harm in context, but could be uncharitably interpreted as problematic by an absent, hypothetical third party.

You must realize how exhausting and corrosive it would be to have your words policed that way, and particularly in your more intimate relationships — where if anything, we should be able to count on being given the benefit of the doubt when we don’t articulate ourselves perfectly. This “dear friend” of yours is presumably someone you like, respect, trust; I imagine you wouldn’t be his friend if you really thought he harbored the kind of hateful prejudices that manifest themselves in the use of racial slurs. So if you already feel that no harm was done or intended when he quoted those lyrics, why would you go out of your way to shame him on behalf of an imaginary, potentially offended stranger who wasn’t even present for your conversation? Do you think your friend’s willingness to read or sing that word suggests something troubling about his character that needs to be discussed — or are you worried that other people will think so? Do you want to spare yourself the personal unhappiness of hearing that word spoken aloud, because it bothers you no matter what the context? Or are you just jonesing to pounce on this guy, because it makes you feel righteous and important to point out other people’s moral imperfections?

To be clear, those are real questions. I’m not accusing you of anything, and I have no idea what your answers will be. I just want you to think about it, because when you ask how you should deal with this friend moving forward, the answer is that it depends entirely on what you hope to accomplish. If this is just a question of not wanting to hear the n-word, then a polite request that he avoid it will get you a lot farther than lecturing him about what he is and isn’t allowed to say as a white guy. If you’re worried that your friend’s comfort with the n-word in a rap song means he might also comfortable with it in more hurtful contexts, then a genuine question about his perspective would serve you better than assuming the worst. And of course, if all you really want is to call out your friend because you like the warm-and-fuzzy feelings of superiority it gives you… well, you certainly can, but it’s not very nice. (Not to mention that it’s likely to make him feel misjudged, shamed, and condescended to, which is in turn likely to have a not-so-great impact on your friendship.)

Anyway, think about it — this time, but also at any future point in which you feel the urge to issue a moral correction to one of your peers. In most cases, you’re going to find that either letting it go or talking it out makes a lot more sense than a lecture… and in the rare cases where a lecture still seems like your best bet, it’s probably a better bet to ask yourself why you’re wasting your time in a friendship with someone you don’t trust or respect.

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