I remember the first time I was ever called a N*gg*r. My father was stationed on Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. I was between 13 and 15 years of age (it was before I had a car, but when I was officially a teenager), so everywhere I wanted to go, I had to bike it. Which was no problem for me. I loved being on my bicycle. One particular summer day, I decided to do something that, looking back, was pretty uncharacteristic of me. I was just starting to collect comic books (I wouldn’t start seriously doing so until I was 16, when I had a job and a vehicle) and I’d been to one of the local comic book stores a handful of times with my mother. The shop was a good 8-10 miles from the military base, so I thought to ride on up there and use my allowance to buy some comics. At that age, walking into a comic book store was, for me, like a kid who loves candy walking into a candy shop: paradise.
For the most part, I took side streets to get there, staying off the main roads bc traffic and well, I didn’t wear a helmet (i know, I know). At that age, I didn’t give much thought to the type of people I might encounter on my ride. Today, I know better. As I rode through one residential area, I passed a few kids playing outside in their front yard. There would have been no reason to take note of that, except for something I heard as I rode by. One of the kids, a young girl, said to her father “look dad, a n*gg*r”, as if I were some peculiar creature that she’d only read about in books or saw at the local zoo (by that point in the 20th century, Blacks and other Non-Black PoC were no longer dehumanizingly and humiliatingly put on display in human zoos, which really were a thing for hundreds of years).
Back then, I knew very little about racism and how pervasive it was. Nor did I know the history of that slur or how much power it had. Even still, I knew that the word was an insult directed at me and those like me. Given the casual way she uttered the word, I suspect she grew up around it, with family and friends using it regularly. Strangely enough, for all that I’ve lived in the Southern United States for most of my life, that instance was one of the few times I’ve heard the slur spoken by a living human (I qualify that bc I’ve heard the word on television and movies before).
I knew enough, however that I hated the word and never used it or any word derivative of it. In fact, for a very long time, I was opposed to anyone using it. Not just myself or any white person (that’s a given), but any Black or Non Black PoC.. To me, the continued use of a word so strongly tied to the subjugation and dehumanization of African-Americans could never not be a reminder of the inferior status many accord us bc of our skin color. I was also frequently befuddled when I heard a Black person use the word (or, more accurately ‘nigga’). I couldn’t understand why any Black person would use a term that was so obviously a degrading term. Perhaps if I’d had many Black friends, I could have asked them. That was one of the unfortunate aspects of growing up for me–I didn’t grow up steeped in African-American culture. So I didn’t have many Black friends. I suspect things might be different if my parents hadn’t chosen to leave Harlem when I was six months old (though I do understand why they made that choice).
In any case, my strong aversion to the word held fast for many years. That is, until my interest in social justice began to develop; when I first learned about reclaiming slurs. I heard how the LGBTQIA+ community had worked to reclaim ‘queer’ (which I think is one of the more successful efforts to remake a slur) and that ‘b*tch’ was the chosen self-descriptor for many women. Learning about reclaiming slurs made me soften my feelings toward the N-word. I still don’t like it, and hearing its use (in any form) brings a slight chill down my spine. But I’m no longer thoroughly opposed to hearing other Black folks use it (it is not, nor will it ever be ok for wyte folks to use it, and even though other PoC have been oppressed in our wyte supremacist society, it’s not cool for them to use either, bc it was never a term used to disempower them).
For all that I can understand the power in reclaiming slurs, I realize there are some who don’t “get” it, so maybe this will help:
Slurs like the N-word are directly connected to the oppression and/or subjugation of a marginalized group of ppl. Their hostile nature helps chip away at the humanity of the target, making it easier for members of dominant social groups to view the oppressed group as less than human. When you view a group of people as less than human and your opinion is shared by others like you, it is easy to justify horrific acts against the out group.
If you’re a member of a social outgroup, you’re often Othered. You’re not part of the ingroup, so you’re viewed with suspicion, hostility, and often, outright hatred. Women, Blacks, Jews, the Roma, Hispanics, disabled ppl, neurodivergent ppl, mentally ill ppl (and more) are all groups of people that have been viewed as Other, and been the targets of disempowering, dehumanizing language.
When members of a dominant social class successfully dehumanize and marginalize those considered ‘other’, and combine that with overwhelming collective control over social, political, religious, or economic power, they can enforce and impose their views upon the targets of their contempt. From the slaughter of the Indigenous people of the Americas and the enslavement of Africans and their descendants to Nazi Germany and Chechnya, this has borne out over and over, around the world.
For some in these oppressed groups, finding value, worthy, and dignity can come by reclaiming words used to dehumanize you and those like you. It is an attempt to defang the dehumanizing nature of the term, and transform it into something empowering. If you can take a term that was so strongly tied to the degradation of an essential aspect of your identity and transform it into something positive, it’s a way of robbing the slur of its previous power and meaning and making it your own. In a way, reclaiming slurs is a way of saying to the oppressor “you don’t define me. I define me”. That’s why some in the LGBTQIA+ community use ‘queer’, why some women use the word ‘b*tch’, and yes, why some Blacks use the N word.
Please note that as these groups are not monolithic, there are disagreements within the various communities about reclaiming words. There is no universal agreement among Blacks or gays that the N-word or ‘queer’ should or shouldn’t be reclaimed.
(incidentally, the intimate connection between slurs and oppression is what prevents words like “redneck” or “cracker” from being slurs. At no point in US history have wyte people been oppressed or subjugated by PoC. Likewise, the attempts by many Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminists to define TERF as a slur are hollow and ineffectual. While women as a category have been and still are oppressed, the tiny subgroup of women who are called TERFs are not oppressed or marginalized by trans people)