Ta-Nehisi Coates is the internet's new favorite intellectual. After the Atlantic national correspondent burst onto the scene with his book Between the World and Me, Coates has been consistently asked to answer questions on race, class, and gender.
During a stop last month at Evanston Township High School in Illinois for his newest book, We Were Eight Years In Power, the author was asked by a student why white people shouldn't use the n-word, even when singing along to rap songs that use the word.
The student's question came in the wake of a Lil Uzi Berg concert at Northwestern.
Bestselling author @tanehisicoates on the power and ownership of words: https://t.co/133G1W4noo #WeWereEightYearsInPower— Random House (@Random House)1510071840.0
Coates' answer was revelatory, and was perhaps the clearest explanation we've ever heard on the subject.
Coates then went one further by giving an example of two sensitive words – B**** and F****.
And this is an important point Coates makes in his argument – why do white people have a desire to transgress social norms?
The question then, is “why so many white people have difficulty extending things that are basic laws of how human beings interact to black people?"
When you’re white in this country, you’re taught that everything belongs to you. You think you have a right to everything. … You’re conditioned this way. It’s not because your hair is a texture or your skin is light. It’s the fact that the laws and the culture tell you this. You have a right to go where you want to go, do what you want to do, be however — and people just got to accommodate themselves to you.
Coates continued by referring to the history of the N-word.
So here comes this word that you feel like you invented. And now somebody will tell you how to use the word that you invented. ‘Why can’t I use it? Everyone else gets to use it. You know what? That’s racism that I don’t get to use it. You know, that’s racist against me. You know, I have to inconvenience myself and hear this song and I can’t sing along. How come I can’t sing along?’
But, in the end, Coates offered a glimmer - if not of hope, then of understanding.
Ta-Nehisi Coates made a point about how not being able to say nigga can be insightful for white people because it c… https://t.co/dYokfJFMmi— kyle a.b. (@kyle a.b.)1510504185.0
The experience of being a hip-hop fan and not being able to use the word ‘ni**er’ is actually very, very insightful. It will give you just a little peek 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. So I think there’s actually a lot to be learned from refraining.