Australia Hasn’t Had The Same Reckoning With The N-Word, But We Need To

It seems that every time a Black rapper comes down under, like goldfish, Australians forget the ultimate social faux pas — you can't say the n-word if you're not Black.
In 2018, mass conversations were sparked about fans singing lyrics containing the word verbatim, after celebrated US rapper Kendrick Lamar called out a white woman he brought on stage in Alabama singing a lyric in 'm.A.A.d city', two months before his scheduled Splendour in the Grass set in Byron Bay, NSW.
"Woah, you gotta bleep one single word, though," said Lamar at the time. "Did I not?" the audience member responded. “You didn’t,” said Lamar.
Yet, more than four years on, at Sydney's Qudos Bank Arena for the Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers tour, in a mosh pit full of predominantly white people, I found myself having to tap Kendrick Lamar fans on the shoulder as they belted out the n-word, taking away from the live music in front of me to explain why, as a non-Black person, you don't have the right to say the n-word — even when rapping. It should be a given.
Having Zambian roots but also being mixed-race, I feel an obligation to call out the casual use of the n-word as part of my light-skin privilege. I don't cop nearly the same amount of racial abuse and vitriol as darker-skinned Australians, but know the word can still be used against me at any moment.
Yet on Thursday, a white teenage boy was trying to justify his use of the word to me, sheepishly acknowledging that he knew that saying it "in general" was wrong, but because he wasn't hurling it at a Black person with ill intent, it was different, and in his opinion, fine.
"It's not in that context!" he spat back over Lamar's track 'Element', a song about how the harsh reality of growing up in LA's Compton — rife with gang and police violence — has impacted the rapper's worldview.
The argument that parroting back the word when used in a song should be a free pass to say it has long been flouted. But as Melbourne rapper Mulalo shares with Refinery29 Australia, there aren't any excuses — ever.
"Literally shut the fuck up and move on," she says. "There are so many words in the English language, why do you want to use that one? Why are you so pressed about saying that word?"
She says that by default, when you don't see the oppression a group of people face and it doesn't personally affect them, non-Black people often assume that the history around the word no longer applies to the present day.
"I can't go to a Kendrick Lamar concert because I'm going to be triggered by all these non-Black people saying the n-word," she says. "It's just a song to you, but to some of us, it's intergenerational trauma."
The Black Lives Matter movement of 2020 sparked worldwide discussions about racial violence and microaggressions, as well as shifting the public discourse on what is and isn't acceptable after centuries of discrimination, hate crimes and intergenerational trauma that are still felt to this day.
Here in Australia, the inherited movement triggered protests over the continued abhorrent incarceration rates of the Indigenous community and the obscene number of deaths in custody, reminded us of how we've treated Sudanese Australians under the guise of 'African gang' media panic, and sparked offshoot conversations about discrimination and inequality for Black people in the beauty and fashion industry here.
It was a time of reckoning — and a vindication for people of colour.

"People that aren't Black should never use the word because of its deep ties to slavery, colonialism and oppression."

Julie fenwick
Even though we don't share the African-American Black experience — although colonisation saw the forceable, systemic removal and enslavement of Indigenous people — the n-word has historical baggage for Black and Blak people in Australia because it’s still been weaponised against them.
Solomon Islander and Australian woman Julie Fenwick recalls being called the n-word from as early as primary school, and has since taken ownership of the phrase by now saying it herself, reclaiming what was used against her to find pride in her identity.
"I find a sense of empowerment in being able to use the n-word because for so long it was used derogatorily against me. But I also feel conflicted about using it because to a lot of darker-skinned people, I'm not Black," she tells Refinery29 Australia.
Having grown up in predominantly white environments, she explains that the first time she had a Black friend outside of her family, they connected because they were the only people in the room that were 'allowed' to use the n-word when singing along to a Kendrick Lamar song around five years ago.
"I remember feeling a huge sense of belonging and power. People that aren't Black should never use the word because of its deep ties to slavery, colonialism and oppression," she says. "And I think for people that have consistently been oppressed, it's become a word of connection (as it has for me) and a way to regain power, even if its just symbolic, so I do think it's okay for Black-identifying communities to use it."
If Australians are fine cherrypicking when they're allowed to say the n-word after such an immense cultural shift, even if they're repeating song lyrics, it sparks doubt as to what enters their vocabulary when no one is around to pull them up on it.

"It literally knocks the wind out of you when you hear it said out loud."

Malaika mfula
In June this year, I met some of my friend's uni acquaintances at a bar before a gig on Sydney's Oxford Street. A woman, a few drinks in, turned to her friend of European descent and congratulated her on her tan, saying that she looked "full *n-word*" as if she forget I was there. No one said anything, and I had to excuse myself to the bathroom to collect myself. When we left the venue, she pulled me aside and said sorry for saying the n-word — by saying it again in her apology.
Malaika Mfula, who is also Zambian-Australian, tells Refinery29 Australia that she'd shared a similar experience on New Year's Eve, after someone casually dropped the n-word at the party she was at.
"All my white friends didn't say a word [in response]," she reflects. "No one called it out — it ruined my night. It literally knocks the wind out of you when you hear it said out loud."
Merryana Salem, who is Indigenous, offers that non-Black Australians excuse saying the n-word because they reductively view it as just being American slang.
"I'm white-passing and presenting, so I don't get called it, but I've had weirdos ask me for an n-word pass," they tell Refinery29 Australia. "This one time, I told a white supervisor I was Aboriginal and she was like, 'yes, you have an n-word nose'."
It's concerning hearing the word said by Gen Z in particular, who, with the benefit of being chronically online, often frequently engage with progressive media that challenges outdated social norms like the use of the n-word.
Even with more nuanced uses like being part of song lyrics you've subconsciously absorbed, it's an expectation nowadays that you'd simply skip over the word — not just flat out say it, or replace it with a rhyming alternative. On TikTok, particularly with lipsync challenges, it's expected that you make an effort to emphasise that you're not saying the n-word to avoid misrepresentation.
Yet, these predominantly American videos apparently don't translate back in Australia. It's something that Mulalo, who is South African, has noticed more on social media, which she attributes to people feeling more confident to say it when there's no one to shut them down in person.
At the end of November, Mulalo shared online that a young white girl between the age of 13 to 17 screamed at her to get out of her way, before calling her a "fat n-word bitch", She reported on Twitter that the teenager then started crying because she yelled at her right back and put her in her place.
But this isn't a new experience for her — she used to get into fights in school over non-Black people using the word and in the years since has been told that she shouldn't be offended by its usage, describing the continual frustration as feeling like she "was fighting for [her] life" everyday.
Fenwick was also at the first leg of Kendrick Lamar's Sydney concert this month. She says that she was impressed that the seated crowd she was in didn't sing the n-word, despite her expectations — but she says perhaps that was because they were more visible and lacked the mass protection of the mosh pit.
"People just don't understand the pure hurt behind that word because they've never been through it — I had years of unpacking to do around being Black, because people called me the n-word and othered me growing up," she says.
It doesn't matter if you learnt the lyrics exactly as they're sung by the artist, or if you say it in your head when listening to music. You simply cannot let yourself off the hook for rapping the n-word, or stay silent when you hear someone else do it.
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