Folk Singer Arlo Guthrie Defends SAE ‘Ni**er’ Chant (Sort Of): ‘It’s Time To Lighten Up’

Dear White People,

I know how hard you have it in the United States these days. All these colored folks constantly complaining about America’s long and ongoing love affair with racism has got to be getting on your nerves. I mean, YOU built this great country and they get to live in it!

Sure, a lot of that construction was done by slaves but you know what I mean!

Anyway, I wanted to help you out on a particular point I hear a lot of you white folk repeat a lot: The absolute unfairness of black people being allowed to say “n*gger” or “n*gga” and not you. Here’s famed folk singer Arlo Guthrie making this very point just a few days ago:

“Saying ‘N*gga’ does not make anyone a racist, or we’d have to conclude that 98% of African Americans are racists. This is just stupid. If anything, it’s time to lighten up.”

Arlo said this in the context of the shit storm that came down on the SAE fraternity bros that were chanting “some ridiculous song on a bus.” He wasn’t defending the chant, just suggesting that people are overreacting to it. Like Arlo said, black people say it all the time so what’s the problem?

Actually, a lot.

Now, I’m not the PC Police and I do like me some Alice’s Restaurant but in this instance I’m going to have to come down on the side of “STFU up, white boy. You don’t know what you’re talking about.” And the same goes for anyone else who really thinks “Blacks say it all the time so it’s not fair that I can’t.”

Let me get the really obvious part out of the way: What those little future Republican pricks were chanting was not a rap lyric or something innocuous like that. And they certainly were not saying “nigga.” They were chanting “There will never be a n*gger SAE. There will never be a n*gger SAE. You can hang them from a tree but they’ll never sign with me. There will never be a n*gger SAE.”

So Arlo’s claim that this was no different than a black person saying “n*gga” is 100% the product of a white person’s ignorance. The frat boys were clearly being racist scumbags and the “ger” in “n*gger” was very distinct. No, this is not an accent thing. “N*gga” has a very distinct and different meaning from “n*gger”, even if it originally came from it.

I’m not going to get into a history lesson of how or why the black community started to co-opt the word “n*gger.” I’m sure people much smarter than me have already done that. And, frankly, it’s not important to this conversation. What IS important is that white people get it through their thick skulls that “n*gga” is the equivalent of “dude,” although with a few caveats.

How did I come to this shocking conclusion? Oh, I dunno, maybe because I’ve actually spent time with black people? It’s amazing what you learn when you interact with “those people” on a daily basis. For instance, did you know that you can call a white person “nigga” and not offend them in the slightest? It’s true! Heck, a white person can call a black person “n*gga” and not offend them, either. The caveat mentioned earlier is that this only works when the white person is a known quantity.

This simply means that the person you’re talking to has to already know who you, the white person, are and know that your use of “n*gga” is no different from “dude,” “bro,” “buddy” or whatever term of familiarity you use. And that’s all “n*gga” really is: A term of familiarity. If you don’t believe me, try listening to black people complain about black lowlifes (the same way while people would complain about “white trash”). I’ll bet you money that if they say “n*gger” you’ll hear that “ger” very clearly. Or, if you actually know a black person that you’re not afraid of (white people are so silly that way), just ask them if there’s a difference between the two. I’d be shocked if the vast majority didn’t look at you like you were crazy for thinking there isn’t.

So why can’t white people just toss it around willy-nilly, too? Let’s be honest, Chris Rock wasn’t wrong in his famous sketch about the difference black people and n*ggers. Every race/culture has its embarrassments. N*gger is more or less semantically the same as spic, guinea, mick, white trash, etc. etc. They’re all ethnic or racial slurs that are supposed to represent the undesirable cultural stereotypes of a group. In an ideal world, no one would take offense if a white person used any of those because we’d all know what they’re talking about. For example, no one gets upset if a black person uses the phrase “white trash,” right? That’s just not fair! Why are white people so oppressed by the PC Police?!

This “oppression” was perfectly summed up by (apparently*) Bill Cosby:

If a white man falls off a chair drunk, it’s just a drunk. If a Negro does, it’s the whole damn Negro race.*

In other words, when white people use the word “n*gger”, they have immense difficulty not generalizing it to all black people. When we call a white person “white trash”, we never EVER think they represent all white people or that their behavior is a “white” thing. But when white people use “n*gger”, they’re rarely talking about just one person and whatever stupid thing they did, they’re talking about all black people. That is, after all, how the word was used for centuries. That’s a lot of baggage to shed and we’re doing a terrible job of shedding it.

If you think I’m being unfair, pay attention to how often the phrase “the black community” gets tossed around. There are almost 9 million black people in this country spread across all fifty states. I can’t even travel the 300 miles from New York to Virginia without the food, accent and slang changing. Black people from New York City have about as much in common with blacks in LA as I have with whites from Texas. But we still lump them all together in “the black community” and “black culture.”

Ever hear of “the white community” or “white culture”? Rarely, if ever. Why? Because we all know that there is no such thing that encompasses us all. But we sure don’t know that about black people. So yeah, when white people say “n*gger”, they usually aren’t making a clear distinction and that’s why it’s racist as fuck to use it.

The same kind of goes for “n*gga” but only because people like Arlo Guthrie can’t seem to figure out the screamingly obvious difference between the two words. In Arlo’s case, I sense that he really doesn’t know any better. In the case of right wing racists like you see every day on Fox News, I’m pretty sure they do understand the difference but don’t care. You see, as long as they can keep up the pretense that “black people say it so it’s OK”, they can pretend “n*gger” in the mouth of a white person isn’t blindingly racist. They’re not really fooling anyone but that fig leaf of respectability is all the right needs to keep being the horrible people they are.

So they next time you hear a white person complaining that “n*gger” can’t be racist because black people say it all the time, just tell them, “N*gga please! You don’t know shit!”


* I keep finding sources attributing this quote to Bill Cosby but not when or where he said it. If you know, please let me know and provide the link. Thanks!