“Words don’t have meaning without context,” Ta-Nehisi Coates says. And he’s right. Words are totally dependent on the context they’re in, on the relationship between the people using them. It’s true of terms of endearment like ‘honey’ or ‘sweetie’, but it’s also true of much more loaded words. In this intelligent, funny, and insightful video, Coates talks about words that don’t belong to everyone. Just like he doesn’t join in if his wife and her friends are calling each other ‘bitch’— nor does he want to— he talks about the problematic use of white people using the N-word, even when singing along during songs that use it in the lyrics.
The great thing about this video is not just his warmth and empathy while talking about such an incendiary topic— it’s his ability to break down the issue into such an understandable, common-sense argument. If he knows not to use the term ‘bitch’ or ‘faggot’ when other people may have a right to, he asks: “Why do so many people white people have difficulty extending things that are basic laws of, you know, how human beings interact to black people?” It’s such a crucial question. And the answer lies in the fact that white people are raised to feel that they’re entitled to everything, that everything they want or decide to do must be accommodated. And when they’re told something doesn’t belong to them, it’s hard for them to accept that.
If you want to hear him speak on the issue, with grace, humor, and eloquence, you can see the whole thing here:
Coates is a lauded author, journalist, comic book writer, and educator— and watching this video you can see why he is so cherished. He sees beyond the issue of white people using a word because it’s in a song and sees the deeper problem: Why would they want to?