How to ask incendiary questions 101. Can I say the N-word?

Being an ally to the anti-racist cause can be tasking. You’ll find yourself constantly fighting yourself, your own privileges, your own biases. Fighting racism is a lifelong task, something that goes against the entirety upon which Western societies (among many others) have been established. If you live in the West (and especially if you are white), you literally benefit from a racist system every minute of every day. Trying to dismantle that system, opposing it, and exposing it is therefore a herculean task.

Now, in that process, you’ll have questions, and often, you’ll have more questions than answers. Sometimes, the questions are straightforward and you’ll be able to find the answers easily. Other times, the questions could be answered by common sense, but unfortunately, that is a gift that has not been bestowed upon everyone. So the question lingers and you’d like to ask it. For the sake of illustration, let’s assume that the question is whether or not you can say the N-word as a non-black person in whatever context. Now, who could you possibly approach to ask this question and find the answer you’re so obviously entitled to?

Here are some tips on how to ask an ‘incendiary’ question:

  • DON'T. DO NOT just 'throw it out there' to see what happens. By doing so you can actually re-open old wounds, trigger people and cause real harm
  • Google. Google doesn't have feelings. It does not get offended. It has not been at the receiving end of racism. ASK GOOGLE.
  • Google
  • Google
  • IF and this is a big 'if' you have a close friend or relative who may have the answers to your question and you're sure that the person is willing to help you out maybe you could approach them - preferably AFTER you have asked your new best friend: Google.

We live in an age of information, knowledge is literally at our fingertips. So why would we turn to people who have had to answer questions all their lives and who we may offend or hurt in the process, when we can just ask a machine / a programme? Why, in our quest to be better, would we want to cause harm?

Becoming aware of the impact of our presence and behaviour is ‘Step One’ towards making change. Don’t tell me you did not know. You know now.

Also, if you ask the ‘N-word question’, for example, and you do get an answer, accept it! Don’t contest it, don’t ‘debate’ it, don’t ‘discuss’ it. Don’t play ‘the devil’s advocate’. Do not look for an excuse to justify your feelings or opinions, and do not try to find a suitable environment to be safely and freely racist in. If you are not ready to accept the answer you will get, don’t ask.

If I have offended anyone with this message, I have to admit that I’m not really sorry. On the contrary, I’m hoping that any offence taken may lead to reflection and eventually to change.

I personally know that I have caused many black people a lot of emotional stress, and that I have benefitted from their free emotional  and intellectual labour, just because I was ‘asking them questions’. For a very long time, I was not aware that some questions (no matter the intention) are hurtful at worst, and cumbersome at best, and that nobody owes me anything. Not even answers.

I know that I will not be able to dismantle a racist system on my own. What I have come to realise, however, is that I can have an impact – no matter how small.

I once called out an acquaintance of mine in a very obvious and public manner, for example, because he was being extremely racist (in a very underlying yet biting way) towards my partner. The incident resulted in public embarrassment.

Ever since, he has been making a huge circle around my partner. He cannot avoid me in the same way due to circumstances, but I know that he counts his words when I’m around. Now, I may not have changed his racist prejudices – only he can do that – but I have created an environment in which he feels less free to just blurt out whatever comes to his head, that, in turn, has so far ensured that my partner has not had to hear racist comments from him (and from others – if you’ve ever called a white guy publicly ‘racist’, you’ll know that word spreads…). That, in my opinion, is impact. And if that comes at the price of someone in my surroundings being ‘cautious’ around me, then so be it.