Earlier this week, Gina Rodriguez posted a short video clip on her Instagram Story of her dropping the N-word while singing “Ready or Not” by the Fugees. The backlash and social shaming followed immediately on almost every major news outlet and gossip site. The Jane the Virgin actress was quick to delete the clip and responded with what felt like a very half-ass apology before following up shortly after with a more heartfelt written apology, finally taking responsibility for her actions and referring to the backlash as “a much deserved lesson.” But the controversy has touched on the reality that quite a few people in the Latinx community do feel this sense of entitlement when it comes to claiming and using this word. But do Latinxs even have the right to be using it at all?
The Latinx community’s relationship with the N-word is complicated, to say the least. Music critic and writer Gary Suarez points to ”the unsettling comfort many Latinx people have with saying the N-word and the right they claim to have in using it,” in his op-ed for the New York Times. If you’re part of the Latinx community, chances are you’re well aware of this dynamic. It’s unfortunately used a lot among communities of color — especially in big metropolitan cities like NYC — largely due to hip-hop culture’s influence. Many perceive it as a part of their cultural upbringing.
Lots of us who grew up listening to artists like Jay Z, Nas, Tupac, and Snoop Dogg, often heard the word in our favorite songs. If you grew up in a neighborhood where Latinx people and African Americans live alongside each other, the N-word was just another colloquialism. But for a Latinx person to be claiming the right to use this word due to their proximity to blackness is highly problematic on a number of levels and this is especially the case for the large portion of Latinxs who identify as non-black Hispanics.
While the Latinx community experiences racism and discrimination in the states, it is different from the oppression the black community faces in the U.S. today. Black and non-black Latinxs folks might have grown up in the same neighborhoods and identified with similar struggles, experienced poverty, or even felt the weight of racial discrimination, but the truth is that the slur has been and still is often used today by whites to dehumanize black people in a way that non-black Latinxs have not experienced. The history of the word is often not considered when casually uttered by Latinxs who don’t feel the pain many in the black community experience when they hear the word used by a racist white person.
“It’s heavily problematic for non-black people to use the word because their experiences are not rooted in the history of oppression and exploitation or dehumanization that a black person in the U.S. or a black person in Jamaica or in the Dominican Republic, or a black person in Colombia experienced,” says Dr. Griselda Rodriguez-Solomon, a professor in Sociology at the City University of NY (CUNY) with a specialization in Latino studies. “So they don’t have the right to claim a word that there’s no emotional or spiritual connection to.”
There’s a reason why there’s always been so much controversy when non-black Latinx artists like Jennifer Lopez or Fat Joe have used the word. Fat Joe who uses the word freely in his music lyrics and in conversation, recently got some heat after a recent appearance on NY hip-hop radio station Hot 97 after claiming that Latinx are Black people (which is the case for Black Latinxs) and that they “may even identify themselves with African and black culture more than black people.” Twenty years ago Jennifer Lopez was shamed for using the word in the remix to her 2001 song “I’m Real.” While some (including JaRule, who claims to have written the lyrics) defended Lopez’s use of the word because she’s a Puerto Rican raised in the Bronx, to say that these two light-skinned Latinxs have experienced the same degree of pain from the slur as a black person would be greatly inaccurate. That fact alone seems to be the point a lot of folks in the Latinx community who unapologetically use the word are missing.
The fact that some of our favorite black artists use the word in their music as a form of reclamation doesn’t make it okay for a non-black person to repeat it. It’s also not our place to police or question the black community — black Latinxs included — on their decision to reclaim the word.
In 2017, Dominican and Trinidadian rapper Cardi B received backlash for her usage of the N-word in her lyrics. She then went on to defend her right to use the word after explaining that she identifies as black and Latinx.
“I do think that darker-skinned Afro-Latinos (who present as black) do have a level of experience with dehumanization and exploitation that someone like me or lighter — [despite being Afro-Latina] don’t have,” says Dr. Rodriguez-Solomon. “Dark-skinned Afro-Latino men have an experience that resonates with the African American male experience like police violence, increased surveillance by the state, that I think they’ve earned the right if we’re really going to talk about it. But I find it problematic, especially with Afro-Latinos who are quick to use the word and then are quick to be like nah homie, I ain’t black.”
“A large part of this conversation boils down to access and entitlement. The N-word has been reclaimed by those within the African American community and it’s theirs to say who can and who can’t say the term, and there’s a difference in opinion on this. However, the overall consensus is that if you’re not Black you shouldn’t be using the term,” says multimedia journalist and founder of Ain’t I Latina?, Janel Martinez. “When we look at the Latinx community, despite the various racial identities, the thought that geographic or cultural proximity to African Americans grants the opportunity to say the N-word is not the case. Again, if you’re not Black, you shouldn’t use the term. And insisting that you should and giving the reason that you grew up in an urban area or it’s said in your favorite songs isn’t okay. You don’t have access and it’s not your term to use.”
Basically, it’s not really debatable whether or not non-blacks should be using this word. It is not a term of endearment. It’s a slur that is still incredibly hurtful to blacks and Afro-Latinxs. And if at that end of the day you can’t relate to that pain and you aren’t claiming black in all spaces — not just when it’s convenient — you really have no business dropping the N-word. Period.