Die rolling on casino tables. Young adults dressed to the nines. Music blasting loud enough that dancers must yell in order to be heard by their friends and those around them. The Bling by Spring dance on April 1 was a party where Point Loma Nazarene University students danced and learned to gamble from dusk until dawn (or from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m.).
It may have been an enjoyable night for everyone involved if it were not for numerous students within the PLNU student body (the majority of whom are not Black) being overheard using the n-word while singing along to their favorite rap and pop songs. Even though the use of any profanity was censored by the DJ, students still screamed this word. According to PLNU’s Fall 2022 Data Point, out of the 2,725 traditional undergraduate students, 1.4% are African American/Black, 6.8% are Asian American, 21.7% are Hispanic/Latino, and 57.9% are white.
It was a very surreal moment to be standing in the middle of the crowd after hearing the n-word being sung so casually. I felt both horrified and alone; it seemed like I was the only one who noticed or cared.
So let’s have a serious conversation. It is no secret that African Americans have a problem with others using the n-word. If you didn’t know, now you know.
The use of this word is very controversial. The casual use of it in hip-hop, rap and R&B music by Black artists is a relatively new phenomenon and has been a way for a younger generation of African Americans to reclaim the word. However, there are still some African Americans who refrain from using it because of its vulgarity and the history of it. The use becomes even more controversial when those who are not African American wish to say it when singing along to their favorite music made by Black artists. Some may ask, “Well, if I’m not saying it against someone when I’m singing, can I still say it?”
I am here to ask you not to.
My experience at the dance left me feeling very unsettled and disheartened. There are so few Black students, staff and faculty at PLNU that it often feels like we are a little invisible, and the things that may cause us harm do not matter.
In the past few days, I have spent time speaking with a few faculty members about the use of the n-word at the Bling by Spring and received their thoughts and insight into this problem and the implications it causes.
Linda Beail, Ph.D., professor of political science, spoke to me about the history and weight of this word, and how its use can be complicated because it is used differently by different people.
“I think that word is really weighty and loaded and has a lot of historical significance and power. Many people view it as a problematic term or a term to avoid for really good reasons because in American history, and our history of politics and race relations, it has been used to intimidate, belittle, other and dehumanize African American people and make sure, linguistically, they are put in their place,” said Beail.
She said African Americans are now reclaiming the word in their music, attempting to take back a word that has been used to harm them in the past. However, using this word as an individual who is not a member of the group trying to reclaim it is not part of this mission.
“We can have interesting dialogue and conversations about how well something like that, the meaning of a word, can be changed or reclaimed,” Beail said. “A group that has had power, like white people… have historically had power and used it against Black people in the history of the United States… For white people to use that word can be really, really problematic.”
The acceptance and adaptation of the n-word in African American culture is not an invitation for others to use it. Uzochi P. Nwoko, a writer for The Harvard Crimson, writes, “When a famous black rapper includes the n-word in his or her music, that does not give non-black listeners a free pass to verbalize it when singing along. Though the word is common in black art, the underlying malicious history of the word has not been washed away.”
Additionally, Nwoko writes, “When non-Black individuals vocalize the n-word, a reminder of the malice associated with its roots remains, and elicits a strong sense of unease from many Black persons who witness its expression.”
As I have thought more about the dance, I have begun to wonder why songs with profanity are played to begin with. PLNU draws a lot of very clear and hard lines with other things, such as enforcing a dry campus through the Community Living Agreement, which is supposed to help further our academic and personal success. An institution, especially a Christian one, is supposed to teach students how to be thoughtful, intelligent, well-rounded and passionate people while they discover who they are.
Why are there no guardrails protecting students from not only the vulgar and profane language used in the songs that were played at Bling by Spring but also the graphic, sexual and misogynistic undertones? Especially if language like the n-word is going to be used, whether it is censored out or not. Who is protecting Black students from this word being screamed right next to them? The fact that some of the faculty and staff I have spoken with feel that this should be a decision left for the student body to decide feels inconsistent.
The last thing that I want is for popular, fun, universally known music to stop being played at school functions, but until students can understand that their words have power and consequences for those around them, I am not sure if students should make that decision.
In her book, “So You Want to Talk About Race,” Ijeoma Oluo writes, “The history of a word matters as long as the effects of that history are still felt. As long as we have had the spoken word, language has been one of the first tools deployed in efforts to oppress others. All oppression in race, class, gender, ability, religion, it all began with words.”
“To me, a song is not worth your discomfort,” adjunct criminology professor Marshall Fields III, Esq., said. “Your parents sent you here so that you would feel safe, but evidently, you weren’t. And your feeling of safety was trumped by an opportunity to play a top 100 song, and as a parent, that’s an issue.”
We gain more from this institution than academics. We are learning how to love others every moment of our lives, with a love that is godly and Jesus-like because there is no “clock in, clock out” as Fields said. This is why we must all choose to say “no” when given an opportunity to harm someone, either with our words or actions.
Fields said that the use of the n-word by students who are not Black may come from a lack of contact. It is difficult to understand how this can be hurtful when we are not around those who feel hurt. We are able to see one another’s humanity when we come into contact with those who are different from us. We deconstruct preconceived notions of what we think someone is like and replace them with what we know they are like because we know them personally. The use of the n-word is a product of a lack of proximity to those who are harmed by the n-word.
So get around people who don’t look like you and build empathy for them and the things they carry. Please stop using the n-word because it hurts us. Please understand that your words and actions have consequences, and they may affect people who you don’t even notice.
Written By: Maddy Tucker