Academia & Gender Equality, Academia & Racial Justice, Allied Partnerships, Colorism, Ethnic Reconciliation, Language & Equality, Youth of Color, Zanetta Holley

Allied Partnerships: An Introduction To The Complexities of the N-word

A friend wrote a Medium article last year on the subject of when she was first called the “n-word.” You see, for black or African Americans in this country, it isn’t a question of have you been called the “n-word,” but a question of when.  Or even, when was the first time. This is my own story about when I was first acquainted with that nasty word. And yes, even someone as light-skinned as I will still be called the “n-word” because skin tone doesn’t matter in this case; black is black.  

In the late 60’s -early 70’s my family and I had come back from our first tour in Schwienfurt, Germany; a place that I had grown to love and considered home for a very long time. My parents purchased a townhouse in a new development in Virginia Beach, Virginia. This was a kind of homecoming for them, as they both are from Norfolk, Virginia, and I and my brother were both born in Norfolk.  

I had a friend who lived at the end of the street.  I would go down and spend the entire day playing with our toys and dolls.  Mostly, we played with our Barbies; our white Barbies, because back then, that was the ONLY choice.

One day we were outside playing and a little boy came up to say hello and to sit and spend some time with us.  I don’t recall his name, just as I don’t recall her’s, but what is important is the lesson I learned that day.  The three of us had been laughing and enjoying ourselves when the little boy’s older brother and a few of the brother’s friends showed up.  I could immediately see the boy with whom we had been playing become rigid. His entire demeanor changed. He anticipated what he knew was coming.

The first words out of his older brother’s mouth were, “What are you doing playing with that nigger?”  I remember looking at my friend. She was scared and had tears in her eyes. I thought they were talking about her!  When one of the other boys looked at her and yelled, “Nigger lover,” it was then that I realized they were talking about me.  It was also then that my friend started crying and yelling for her mother who was instantly at the screened door (I assume she had already heard part of the exchange and was already on her way).  She told the boys to leave and go home. And sadly, instead of offering me refuge in her home for even a few minutes, she looked at me and told the little black girl to go home, too.

That day I lost some innocence, and I lost a friend. She never came up the street to play at my house anymore, and after a couple of trips down to her’s, I  stopped going as well.

Up until the day my friend’s article was published on Medium, I  had never told anyone about what transpired that sunny Virginia afternoon. Not even my parents knew.  I just went home to my room and cried that day, while my Nana watched General Hospital in the other room.

The little boy, the one our age, told me he was sorry for what his brother and his friend’s had said that day.  We would talk every now and then when they weren’t around. I now wonder whether his family ever ruined that compassion and infectious laugh with their hatred and racism.

This was the first time I  was called the “n-word. ” I was six years-old.

Recently, I posted in the CBE-Voices of Color Facebook page group about three phrases that non-POC use that are problematic.  I promise that I will get back to those three phrases, but first I want to talk about the “N-word,” following-up on a post by Rev. Oghene’tega Swann.  Rev. Swann shared a link about a professor that used the “N-word” in one of his lectures and how his POC students walked out of his lecture. He didn’t understand why his usage was a problem.  

I will make this as simple as I can.  Black people of color have taken a word that was used by colonizers and slave owners in a derogatory manner to describe their ancestors and turned it into a greeting and a term of endearment and friendship within their community. This is seen as a method of gaining back some of what was taken from them. Some Black POC use it and others do not.  Whether or not Black POC use it is a personal choice.

White people and non-black POC should NEVER use the “N-word”.  This is NOT up for debate.  It does not matter if it is in a song lyric; you do not sing it.  It does not matter if it is in a video game; you do not say it. It does not matter if it is in a book you are reading aloud or even an audio book you are listening to; you do not say it.  It does not matter if a POC greets you with it; you do not return the same greeting. And this, most importantly of all, it does not matter how black or POC adjacent you are (ie, how close you may be to the black people in your life); you STILL do not say it!  Ever!  

It is never acceptable for a white or non-black POC to say the “N-word”.  Period.

I hope this helps clear things up.

-Zanetta Holley

Zanetta Holley

Zanetta Holley is a former Special Assistant to the Inspector General and current Special Assistant for Investigations with a law enforcement agency in D.C.  Prior to that, Ms. Holley worked on the Hill advocating for funding for the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), the nation’s largest and most effective minority education organization.  She attended Jackson State University, a historically Black College and University (HBCU) in Jackson, MS.  Ms. Holley works with several groups advocating for social justice and against racism and oppression. She is also CBE-Voices of Color’s Vice President for Allied Partnerships and can be reached on 

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