If You’re Not Black, Don’t Say the N-Word

So, Bette Midler, a singer/actress I’ve enjoyed for many many years – who didn’t love Beaches? – sent out a few controversial tweets this week using the n-word.

I’ve always liked Midler. She’s a great singer, for one, a true entertainer, and she made it big being different. She made herself a star by not fitting into conventional standards of beauty, femininity or even talent. I’ve always appreciated her “I’m gonna do it my way” attitude.

But Bette?


You’re doing too much right now.

It pains me to state an absolute because there are so many shades of grey in the world. So many perspectives and sides to a story, so many different things to consider even in questions of right and wrong. I mean, there are wonderful lessons in those grey areas. I named my blog A Life Not Grey, for Pete’s sake.

But for the record? I just don’t think it’s a good idea for a non-Black person to use the n-word.

And yes, I’m going to refer to it as the n-word rather than spell it out because the point here is not to shock or offend, it’s to point out something that people who use this word carelessly don’t seem to understand: If you’re not black, I don’t see how you’ve possibly earned the right. This contextually rich, occasionally bloody, pitifully sad, horribly painful, baggage laden, incredibly nuanced word does not belong to anyone who has not suffered the frequent indignities that come along with being Black.


I said it. If you’re not black, you have no business using the n-word.

Kellye – I’m playing angel on the shoulder now – in good conscious, how can you, a professional wordsmith, deny anyone access to a word? You defend most everyone’s right to do most everything. This is America! We have the right to free speech.

That’s very true, and I do, to a fault. Even if I don’t agree with your choice, if you’re a tax-paying adult who’s not hurting anyone, I think you have the right to do whatever you can afford, and I’m not just talking about money when I mention cost. I’m talking about the emotional, spiritual, even physical tolls that our actions can take, even when well-reasoned. If you’re willing to pay those tolls – and again, you’re not hurting anyone else – I say do your thing. I don’t have to agree with you. That’s the wonderful thing about choice, and that’s the wonderful thing about free speech.

But when it comes to the n-word? I’m sorry. If you’re not black, no. You can’t use it. Period. Have some respect.

I say again, you, non-Black person, have not earned the right to use that word. You haven’t paid the necessary tolls. You don’t have to, and unlike me, no one will force you to whether you like it or not.

You, non-Black person, don’t need to use that word. And the fact that you want to, that some people who are not Black will actually argue about their right to use it because Black people have miraculously turned it into something good, something versatile, something just for us, stop it. That you insist it’s okay proves that you know nothing about the legacy behind the n-word. Further, you have no respect for the long, bloody, winding, hilly, rocky, shitty road black people have taken – and are still on – to be able to reclaim and repurpose that formerly unconscionable word into something else. It’s ours now.

Don’t get me wrong. I know there are tons of people in the Black community who would happily abolish the word entirely. They espouse the belief that no one should use the word, that it’s history is too violent and reprehensible to keep a momento. I respect that. I completely understand their point of view.

I’ve thought long and hard about my own use of the n-word, and honestly, I may change my mind. I don’t think I will, but knowing what’s behind it? Seeing it’s history play out every day in the news, in blood, bullets and tears on the streets, in the workplace, in my family, in my life, well. For me, that word isn’t going anywhere because the sentiment, action and infrastructure behind it aren’t going anywhere – at least not anytime soon.

Midler was trying to make a point about gender, but she screwed up. One, don’t use controversy to shock unless you’re prepared to deal with the fall out. The fact that she deleted her tweets shows that she was ill prepared to deal with the severity of the backlash they produced.

Two, think before you tweet. Guard your image, people. If you’re Bette Midler, any tweet you send is going to be read. Someone – probably thousands of people – will agree with your point. So, why the shock treatment? Whether you’re an award-winning famous person or not, don’t let your ego write checks your ass can’t cash.

Three, think period. In her second defense tweet Midler said the first tweet was not about race. The very idea that she would say anything related to the n-word is not about race is ludicrous. Is she crazy? The n-word is all about race. It always has been, and at this point in the world, it feels like it always will be. In that follow up tweet she mentioned status, even history, but I get a strong feeling that black women don’t factor into her gender-focused dialogue. After all, she said this isn’t about race, remember?

It’s a narrative that pains me more than most painful messages related to different dimensions of diversity. This persistent denial of black women as a part of feminist doctrine. It’s stupid. We are women. We suffer the same sexism and mistreatment, along with the rancid cherry on top that is racism.

I believe Midler meant what she said when she tweeted this is not about race. In her mind, it was about connections and a history of systemic ill-treatment. Her comparison actually wasn’t wrong – but it was callous. It was also careless, and it ultimately promoted the same kinds of stereotypes and bias that feminists try so hard to discredit.

At the end of the day, the purpose of language is to help us understand, to help us communicate with one another, to build relationships, get things done. If you’re careless with the words you use, if you don’t understand their full meaning, you will have problems.

Midler has since apologized. In that apology she also made an important connection between race and gender. But why be sorry when you can be careful? Apologies are so common these days they’ve become almost cheap, and people will always wonder, did you mean what you said? Is your apology sincere? Or, are you mostly apologizing because you messed up, and everyone called you on it?

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