Ta-Nehisi Coates takes on questions in promotion of his book, ‘We Were Eight years in Power: An American Tragedy’ at Evanston Township High School in Evanston, IL; Photo: Random House/YouTube

In the U.S. there are few words more controversial than the n-word. And when it comes to hip-hop culture, the problem is how people outside that black community have appropriated it. To clear the air celebrated socio-political author, Ta-Nehisi Coates, explained why white people should not use the word — even if it is in their favorite rap song.

Coates was at Evanston Township High School in Evanston, IL touring his latest book We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, when a white audience member asked him if it’s okay that a white person use the n-word because her friends used it all the time when singing along to their favorite songs.

Coates’ response in a word was: no. It is never okay for a white person to use that word. But he also took the time to explain why, and the importance of asking such a tough question. Coates said: “It’s the same thing with words within the African-American community, or within any community. My wife with her girlfriends will use the word ‘bitch.’ I do not join in. And perhaps, more importantly, I don’t have the desire to.”

Coates went on to explain that words don’t have meaning without context. He said that each group has a different way of referring to each other that is exclusive to them like derogatory terms or phrases used in an ironic way. “For white people, I think the experience of being a hip-hop fan and not being able to use the word ‘nigger’ is actually very, very insightful,” he said.

“It will give you just a little peak into the world of what it means to be black. Because to be black is to walk through the world, and watch people doing things that you cannot do, that you can’t join in and do. So, I think there’s actually a lot to be learned from refraining.”

Coates is right when he says the n-word is off limits, and hopefully this will help inform those who have been living under a rock and aren’t aware of the gravity of the situation. Going to a concert and rapping alongside your favorite lyricist is what makes going to concerts so special, but it shouldn’t remove you from the reality of what’s going on in the real world.

Like Coates said, to refrain from using it means taking a conscientious step towards understanding what it means to be black in America. It won’t answer all the questions, but it will (in a small way) help bridge the divide.