Editor's note: The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Black History Month aims to remember and celebrate the history of the African Americans who fought to create and maintain the rights we have today.
Arguably, we are still creating history through actions like #BlackLivesMatter or Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the National Anthem, in protest to police brutality. These are forms of civil disobedience, which once played a huge role in the Civil Rights Movement that took place across America.
Because of this pivotal movement, we no longer deal with a plethora of issues that were once a part of America’s racist past. For example, there are no longer segregated public areas designed to keep colored and white people separate.
But while we may have battled segregation with integration and reforms have been put in place to ensure African Americans are treated equally, other offenses are harder to regulate and completely abolish.
One, in particular, is the use (and misuse) of the n-word.
This forbidden word has started controversies, ruined careers and continues to be a topic of debate.
A major discussion that has arisen in the past is whether or not non-black individuals are permitted to say the n-word.
Though there is no true consensus, according to YouGov, the majority rule that many find the n-word offensive and believe it should not be spoken by other races.
There are a few reasons why people believe that this word should be exclusively used by black individuals, but in order to truly understand the oppressive weight the n-word holds, we must first understand its historical origin.
Linguistically, the n-word can be traced all the way back to the Latin word “niger” meaning “black.” Used in languages like French, Spanish and Portuguese, the word soon made an appearance in the United States, in the early nineteenth century, according to The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).
During a time in the United States where slaves were owned, the n-word was added at the beginning of a slave’s name, in order to distinguish between them and their white counterpart with the same moniker.
Once slaves were emancipated and began seeking their rights as citizens, the n-word became a more derogatory term, used to insult rather than indicate distinction. More critically, the word was used to enforce and maintain a harmful power dynamic that kept white individuals in control. This term evolved even after slaves were given freedom and used to keep African-Americans from having the same opportunities as their white counterparts.
Famed African-American poet, Langston Hughes has even said that the word “sums up for us colored all the bitter years of insult and struggle in America.”
In essence, it is a term that encompasses the overall institutionalized and systematic racism of the past and the discrimination and oppression that many still face today.
So why use it at all, you might ask?
Plain and simple, the n-word has been reclaimed. This word that once embodied discrimination and white supremacy has evolved to African-Americans, by replacing the “-er” with a more colloquial “-a.”
And because it was once used to belittle them, African-Americans flipped the script and now use this word to more commonly refer to each other in a more friendly manner––the key phrase here is “each other” as a term of endearment.
What’s important for people to understand is this word still holds a lot of weight when it leaves the lips of someone who is not black.
Though African-Americans may use it in a more positive way, we currently still see the n-word being used in a demeaning manner by people of other races.
In the past decade, many celebrities have been exposed for using it, whether it be socially or maliciously. Camilla Cabello, Charlie Sheen, Jeffree Star and Madonna are among a few of the stars who’ve been called out for this.
With the current racial tensions that have arisen in America in the last few years, it’s essential that when we see the n-word being used, we address and advise the speaker of the power and pain the word possesses.
The insulting and oppressive racial undertones that lay hidden in the word are very much brought to light when spoken by a non-black individual.
Bottom line, no matter the context, it shouldn’t be said by someone who is not particularly African-American.
Whether it be used lightheartedly, as a “joke” or even when singing along to a song, the n-word is still very much seen as a racial slur when used by non-black people and if we don’t hold them accountable for saying the n-word, the dark history of it will continue to live on.