Commentary: Why Kanye Doesn't Control the N-Word Pass

Hip hop has been handing white people the N-word for decades.

The reason you don’t give small children a book of matches is because there’s a strong chance they will set something on fire. Yet, hip hop has been handing white people the N-word for decades and then getting upset when they wave it around and shout it out. Except Kanye West, who has been known at concerts to say, “White people, this is the only time you can say the word ‘n***a’!” (Note to Kanye: No, it’s not.)
So it’s fitting that when French fashion designer Jean Touitou, the creative brain behind A.P.C., used the word repeatedly during his Spring 2015 runway show, he felt it was not only OK, but an “homage” to his friendship with Mr. Kim Kardashian. West, who collaborated with A.P.C. last year, did not help design this latest collection, but it was titled “N****s in Paris” after his song with Jay Z. To introduce the line, which includes a collaboration with shoewear company Timberland, Touitou held up a sign that said “Last Ni##@$ IN PARIS.” Then he explained what he meant: "I call this one look Last N****s in Paris. Why? Because it's the sweet spot when the hood — the 'hood' — meets Bertolucci's movie Last Tango in Paris. So that's 'N****s in Paris' and Last N****s in Paris.”

To the audience’s credit, nervous laughter filled the room. But that did not stop Touitou, who had a few more derogatory statements to get out, so he continued: "Yes, I mean, it's nice to play with the strong signifiers. The Timberland here is a very strong ghetto signifier. In the ghetto, it is all the Timberlands, all the big chain.”

Later, when asked to explain himself in an interview, Touitou trotted out the I-have-a-pass-because-I-am-friends-with-a-Black-person card — the excuse that doesn’t change a single thing because this one Black person is not representative of the millions of Black people across the world. Still, Touitou said, “I am friends with Kanye, and he and I presented a joint collection at the same place, one year ago, and that this thing is only a homage to our friendship. As a matter of fact, when I came up with this idea, I wrote to him, with the picture of the look and the name I was giving to it, and he wrote back immediately saying something like, 'I love this vibe.'”
Well, kudos, Kanye. We are glad you “love this vibe.” But maybe the rest of us don’t want words like “n***a” held up on signs on runways and then dismissed as a “strong signifier” to “ghetto culture.” Maybe we want some boundaries around what is allowable and where. Maybe we want white people to stop being so excited that they can hurl racial epithets and hide behind the title of a song. And maybe we don’t care at all what Kanye thinks about it because we also know the history of the word and of slavery, lynching, police shootings and all of the other times that white people have a little too much fun and freedom using the word.

Maybe Touitou should read a newspaper or history book before he names his next collection.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photos from left: Bennett Raglin/BET/Getty Images for BET, Franck Prevel/Getty Images)

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