Ottawa·Point of View

The N-word and the 'unnecessary pain' it inflicts

CBC Ottawa asked three leaders in Ottawa's Black community to share their perspectives on what "that word" means to them, and what they think needs to change.

3 Black leaders in Ottawa share how they feel when they hear 'that word'

How does hearing the N-word make you feel?

3 years ago
Duration 5:29
Gwen Madiba, Manok Lual and Luigi "City" Fidelia share their experiences with that word

The use of the N-word during a class at the University of Ottawa has sparked debate over racism, academic freedom and who has the right to use the term. CBC Ottawa asked three leaders in Ottawa's Black community to share their perspectives on what 'that word' means to them, and what they think needs to change.

Gwen Madiba, Equal Chance

Equal Chance advocates for equal opportunities for Black people in Canada and runs programs for vulnerable people

When I think of what the N-word evokes in me, I think of unnecessary pain. I think of my ancestors and what they had to go through because they were treated as, or seen as, that word.

That word was not made by my people. It was made and created by others to submit us to a treatment that is unfair, unequal, unethical and unjust.

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During COVID, we developed a meals program serving vulnerable members of the community. One day we served an older woman. When the volunteer and I showed up at her place, she seemed a bit shocked to see us. We felt a weird vibe and we just left.

That night, she sent my organization an email:

I never thought I would see the day that a [N-word] would be helping me.

The way she just casually dropped the N-word, we could not believe it. I'm just baffled by the ease with which some people use it.

The way in which an institution reacts to a student's request not to use this word in class amplifies the feelings I have every time I hear the N-word.

We don't need to say this word. Yes, it's in history books, but do we absolutely need to say it?

Manok Lual says when a teacher said the N-word in a classroom of mostly white students, he remembers feeling a lack of belonging as everyone turned to stare at him. (Omar Dabaghi-Pacheco/CBC)

Manok Lual, Prezdential Basketball

Prezdential Basketball is a social enterprise helping youth in Ottawa's Overbrook neighbourhood

The feeling I get when I hear the N-word depends on who's uttering the word and their intention. But overall, it brings a huge sense of discomfort.

I can recall sitting in a classroom reading To Kill a Mockingbird. Every time the teacher said the word, 10 or 12 people would break their neck just to look at me.

There's me in a room full of white kids turning around and looking at me. It's interesting, right? How do I feel? Do I feel like I fit in? Do I feel like I belong? 

If you're a teacher, your job is to transfer information. I think there's more sensitive ways to transfer that information. If you think you need to use that word, then I think you need to learn a lot more.

What it brings up for me is that no matter how many times I try to assimilate with society, I'll always be reminded that I'm outside of that society.

Luigi 'City' Fidelia remembers hearing the N-word in class at age 13 or 14, without any context about the origins of the word from his teacher. (Omar Dabaghi-Pacheco/CBC)

Luigi 'City' Fidelia

Fidelia is a musician and studio owner

When I hear the N-word, for me there's that emotion of, 'I don't like what you just did right now!' At the same time, I feel, 'I'm too old to fight you right now.' It's a conflicting moment.

It's definitely a word that cultures outside Black culture should not use. Black people have taken that word and given it new meaning, turning it into a thing for solidarity. It should stay that way.

I remember reading To Kill a Mockingbird, and there was no context. I remember the teacher saying, 'I'm going to use the N-word — just to let you guys know,' and just carrying on.

When you're 13 or 14 years old, you're delicate. It's not part of the educational procedures, before reading the book, to talk about where the word came from to educate students about its origins. I feel there's always loopholes they try to find in order to degrade us.

When it comes to institutions using the N-word, you can't put it in the hands of anybody to make the decision that this word should be used. Read the crowd. Survey the Black students. How does it feel?

I believe that's the process that should be taken when it comes to the use of this word.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

A banner of upturned fists, with the words 'Being Black in Canada'.

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