So it was while I was eating my recently. A group of teachers (all white, myself included) began talking about the recent interview with Donald Serling on CNN. They bemoaned his outright racism and wondered how anyone could be so ignorant. As is often the case with such conversations among white people it soon turned towards the use of derogatory terms, specifically the n-word. They asked amongst themselves 'Why is it okay for them (ie. African Americans) to use the n-word?' With righteous indignation someone said that it doesn't matter, it is a bad word and nobody should use it, including those that are oppressed by it. Everyone agreed. It only got worse from there as many in the group started pulling out the usual tropes (I never owned a salve; I don't see race; and all of the other obfuscations of the issue of race in America).
This conversation was very typical of the conversations I hear regarding race among groups of white people. I don't necessarily find malice in many of the opinions expressed. However, the conversations are usually very shallow, often callous, and generally oblivious, especially regarding the n-word. So here, I will go into three basic reasons why it's not acceptable for white people to use that word, and why it's perfectly fine for African Americans to.
1) African Americans are not a monolithic group. Believe it or not, just like all other groups of people in this world, African Americans vary greatly in their opinions about the use of the n-word. Some feel as my white peers do, that it is never okay. Other people make the argument that it's okay for African Americans to say it because they are the oppressed taking back the oppressors word. By taking the word back and using as a symbol of brotherhood and solidarity they are taking away the power of the word to do harm. It is essentially saying 'Hey! I'm going to take this term of hate and turn it into one of love! You will not label me, I will label myself, and that label will mean dignity, autonomy, and power!' It's basically a giant metaphorical middle finger to all the racists out there that wish to go back to the days of slavery.
2) Unless quoting a particular song lyric that you appreciate and understand, or reading it out of a book (such as To Kill a Mocking Bird or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) it is NEVER okay for white people to use the n-word. Period. I know, I know, you see all of these black people saying it all the time, and you want to get in on the fun. Well, you don't get to. Why? Because white people are still the oppressors (yes, even the colorblind among you). The reason why it's not okay for us to use this word is because it was a word imposed upon African Americans to dehumanize and disenfranchise them. It doesn't matter if you never owned a slave or if you let African American's sit at your lunch counter, it's still wrong. That is a label that was imposed, not chosen. When it is used by African Americans it is used in defiance as a way to take away the hate in the word. Yes, I know, it sucks that you don't have the privilege to use that word anymore, but guess what! You still won't be judged negatively by your skin color. In fact, you will still have distinct, unearned, advantages due to your skin color. So yes, you don't get to say that word anymore, but you haven't lost any power or privilege either. Get over it.
3) Lastly, you never owned a slave. You're colorblind. You have a black friend. Good for you. Nobody is asking you to apologize for slavery or Jim Crow. We all know you didn't do it. But your parents and grandparents did. And several centuries of white people doing this has resulted in social and systematic advantages and privileges that you still benefit from today. For example, all things being equal, you are more likely to get a home, more likely to get into the college of your choice, and more likely to get a job of your choice (and at higher pay). And in exchange for that you don't get to use the n-word. Nobody wants you to apologize for slavery, we all know you didn't do it. What people do want though if for you to recognize the privileges that you have which are based not on merit, but on sex, creed, and skin color.
Please, please, please stop being offended that you don't get to use offensive language. Our society is becoming more open, accepting, and diverse every day, and you need to accept that. You get to keep most of your privileges, and soon enough other groups that you hate will have those privileges as well.