The age of social media presents entirely new standards for understanding and navigating boundaries set by marginalized communities. While the use of racial slurs has always signaled disrespect for minorities, social media platforms can block users who say them. “Facebook has long banned hate speech — defined as violent or dehumanizing speech — based on race, gender, sexuality, and other protected characteristics. It owns Instagram and has the same hate speech policies there” (Washington Post). Social media platforms’ ban on hate speech has led to the creation of terms like “nibba” as N-word alternatives: “changing [the] word “n**ga” slightly, so no one gets offended” (Urban Dictionary). Contrary to popular belief, use of N-word alternatives is incredibly problematic, since it depends on the violence of the N-word itself.
The N-word is inherently derogatory when used by non-Black people because it is loaded with deep-seated bigotry and a history of violence. The N-word is used to dehumanize Black people and assert white supremacy. It is rooted in the premise that Black people are inhumane. Those who use alternatives to the N-word are essentially operating under the problematic notion that because they are not explicitly saying it, Black people should not be offended. This is a form of racial gaslighting.
• Pay attention to which non-Black content creators you interact with on social media. Do not actively support those who utilize the N-word or any of its alternatives.
• Consider: why is it important to respect language that is exclusive to the Black community?
“Researchers use the term ‘racial gaslighting’ to describe a way of maintaining a pro-white/anti-black balance in society by labelling those that challenge acts of racism as psychologically abnormal” (BBC). It’s a social control mechanism that silences communities of color and invalidates their experiences. Minorities on the receiving end of racial gaslighting are presented with two hardships: “Not only are they experiencing racism, they also have to try to fight it while people around them repeatedly tell them that it doesn’t exist” (Metro UK). For centuries, white society has justified their appropriation of and disrespect for Blackness, silencing Black voices when they express frustration with attempts to colonize Black culture. The pattern of white Americans appropriating cultures outside their own is at the root of the creation of N-word alternatives.
Reclamation of a slur can only be done by the community on the receiving end of it. When non-Black people utilize N-word alternatives, they’re referencing a slur that would never be used against them. The Black community’s casual use of the N-word in the media is not an invitation for non-Black people to participate. Refraining from using the N-word or any alternatives is the only way to respect the Black community’s reclamation of the word. Non-Black people using N-word alternatives are essentially refusing to accept that there is an aspect of Blackness that they cannot partake in.
Non-Black people must consider the impact versus the intent of their use of the slur or any of its alternatives. While a non-Black person may intend to avoid offending the Black community by saying “nibba”, use of this alternative implies a desire to get as close to using the N-word as possible. No one outside of the Black community should have any desire to say (or come close to saying) the N-word.
The desire to push the Black community’s boundaries by using N-word alternatives is indicative of a larger societal issue: using Black trauma and outrage as a punchline or means of gaining attention. As social media activism becomes more widespread and the number of Black people on creative platforms increases, users who create content that elicits any reaction (good or bad) from the Black community will likely attract more attention than ever. Many content creators are willing to use controversy and distasteful humor that disrespects the Black community in order to gain views and stimulate higher engagement with their content, thus generating more profit.
Using N-word alternatives means making the conscious decision to disrespect the Black community. Regardless of whether this action is taken in hopes of gaining media attention or purely for comedic purposes, it has the same effects. Casual use of N-word alternatives essentially sends the message that Black people’s boundaries are not to be taken seriously, thus further normalizing disrespect toward the Black community.
American society has a wretched history of regarding Black people’s boundaries as mere requests. Refraining from using the N-word or any of its alternatives is the bare minimum for demonstrating respect for the Black community.
• Social media bans on hate speech fostered the creation of “N-word alternatives.”
• Non-Black people use these alternatives to get as close to saying the N-word as possible.
• This desire is problematic and rooted in the violence of the slur itself.