by Margari Hill
And do not insult one another and do not call each other by [offensive] nicknames. Wretched is the name of disobedience after [one’s] faith. Qur’an 49:11
In late 2013, a group of activists, scholars, and concerned netizens coalesced around the issue of anti-Blackness perpetrated by Muslim youth on social media. Some of these actions included anti-Black slurs in Arabic, Urdu, Somali, and Yoruba, as well as the appropriation of the N-word by non-Black Muslims. Out that group, Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative formed to organize social media campaigns to drop the A-Word and address #UmmahAntiBlackness, as well to give voice to Black Muslims and celebrate their contributions in hashtag conversations that included #BeingBlackAndMuslim. Responding to the call to educate Muslim communities about racism, MuslimARC launched as a human rights education organization.
Black American Muslim scholars, activists, leaders, parents, teachers, and conscious members are exhausted by having to explain why it is not okay for non-Black Muslims to use N-word. The use of the N-word is controversial, even amongst African Americans. However, when a Black person uses the term, it does not spark the same outrage as non-Black people using it. This is because in many ways it is reclaiming the pejorative. Although the Black usage of the word may raise some hairs and spark vociferous debate within the black community, it is not racist. Oppressed people cannot be racist, they may be prejudice. When White people and NonBlack People of Color use the N-word, regardless of intent, they are committing a racist act. When they use it as a pejorative, they are being actively racist asserting a hierarchy that dehumanizes Black people. A non-black person using the N-word to themselves or others as a term of endearment is an act of cultural appropriation, which is a form of passive racism. Cultural appropriation is copying elements of a culture in a colonizing manner and using them outside of their context. Cultural appropriators use those elements without having to suffer the same consequences that members of that culture. The N-word developed to highlight the othering, dehumanization, and exploitation of sub-Saharan Africans who were racialized as Black. On occasion, upwardly mobile Black folks ascribing to respectability politics will distance themselves from other Black Americans and will use the term as a pejorative against Black people they don’t approve of. This may be internalized racism, but it still does not equate to the usage of non-Black folks.
It doesn’t matter if you are well meaning, and if your Black friends give you a pass. No individual Black person can give a non-Black person the weight of our historical experience and oppression. Cultural appropriation is harmful for the members of the oppressed group, especially when you are using a term that is so painful for many Black people. When someone who is not Black uses the term it is often emotionally triggering. When non-Black people argue with Black people who are offended by their appropriation of the n-word, it further inflicts emotional violence. It does not matter if you hear the word a thousand times by Black comedians and hip hop artists. The commodification of Black culture does not give anybody a right to appropriate the term. period.
Finally, White people and Non-Black People of Color who have no linkages with the brutal 400 years history of the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans in the Americas and Jim Crow, as well as the 18th century colonization of Africa which included forced slave labor, population movements, and mass deaths and depopulation, who continue to face systemic racism and violence at the hands of the state and the police, your moral judgment on how Black people reclaim the term is not relevant to the discussion of why it is never okay for Non-Black People to use the term. This is an internal community discussion. The discourse around the N-word is sensitive topic for many Black Americans. The discourse is a source of many microaggressions that make workplaces, campuses, and friendships hostile environments for Black people. Non-Black people who police Black people on the moral repercussions of the term often misuse their non-Black privilege in forcing the issue. Rather than policing Black people, they should focus on uprooting racism within themselves and their community.
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