Ta-Nehisi Coates just explained why white people shouldn't use the n-word in the perfect way

Shutting down racism while making you laugh

Published November 13, 2017 6:25PM (EST)

Ta-Nehisi Coates (Getty/Anna Webber)
Ta-Nehisi Coates (Getty/Anna Webber)

Ta-Nehisi Coates is known for his poignant writing on race and politics. But apparently his oral addresses are equally as moving and perhaps a bit more charming.

During a public event to promote his new book "We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy," a white audience member asked Coates what she should tell her white friends who insist on saying the "n-word." His response was as funny as it was biting and profound.

"Words don't have meaning without context," Coates said. "My wife refers to me as 'honey.' That's accepted and okay between us. If we were walking down the street together and a strange woman referred to me as honey, that wouldn't be acceptable."

"It's the same thing with words within the African-American community, or within any community. My wife with her girlfriends will use the word 'bitch.' I do not join in," he added. "And perhaps, more importantly, I don't have the desire to."

Coates mentioned how he feels similarly about LGBTQ slurs or the term "white trash." So, "We understand that it's normal, actually for groups to use words that are derogatory in an ironic fashion, why is there so much hand-wringing when black people do it?," he questioned. "The question one must ask is why so many white people have difficulty extending things that are basic laws of how human beings interact to black people?"

Coates has a eminently reasonable guess. "When you're white in this country, you're taught that everything belongs to you. You think you have a right to everything," he said. "You're conditioned this way."

He continued, "So here comes this word that you feel like you invented. And now somebody's going to tell you how to use the word that you invented." Coates then mimicked the stale talking points used to argue this concept: "'That's racism that I don't get to use it, that's racist against me. I have to inconvenience myself and hear this song and I can't sing along. How come I can't sing along?'"

"I think for white people, I think the experience of being a hip-hop fan and not being able to use the word n****r is actually very, very insightful," he said, returning to his normal voice. "It will give you just a little peak into the world of what it means to be black. Because to be black is to walk through the world and watch people doing things that you cannot do, that you can't join in and do," Coates powerfully concluded. "And so I think there's actually a lot to be learned from refraining."

Watch the whole exchange below.

By Rachel Leah

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