Last night, Twitter was alight after actor Gina Rodriguez who is Puerto Rican, posted a video of herself getting her hair and makeup done while singing along to the Fugees song Ready or Not. All was going swimmingly – until she failed to skip over the N-word.
The reaction was swift and cutting. Some made the point that Rodriguez had the opportunity to post herself singing any other line in that song. So why choose the most controversial one?
A few hours later, Rodriguez issued what most saw as a non-apology, causing an even bigger stir: “I’m sorry if I offended anyone by singing along to the Fugees, to a song I love, that I grew up on,” she said, in her best Siri voice.
And then the conspiracy theories began: that the video was a PR stunt to try to keep the actor – best known for the title role in Jane the Virgin – relevant. Perhaps the real conspiracy, as remarked on by writer Saeed Jones, should have been about who was being paid to do her makeup.
A more heartfelt apology has since been uploaded to her online platforms, in which Rodriguez states: “In song or in real life, the words I spoke should not have been spoken … The word I sang carries a legacy of hurt and pain that I cannot even imagine.”
But here’s the thing: not everyone agrees that she shouldn’t have said it. Many black commentators pointed out that the topic is complex, because Puerto Ricans (where Rodriguez’s parents are from) share black culture.
This argument is explained in great detail in an episode of Black(ish) from 2015. At a work meeting, two of the characters go through guidelines for the rest of their team. They are:
White people can’t say the N word, period. Mexicans can’t say it. Dominicans can, so can Puerto Ricans – which should have gotten Rodriguez off the hook unless she is in the same category as Jennifer Lopez, who is not allowed: If “you’re a J-Lo Puerto Rican”, you can’t say it – nor if you are Ricky Martin or Marc Anthony, they explain.
According to this list, Puerto Ricans seen as not having close enough ties to the black community are “no bueno”. But the Rosie Perezes, Fat Joes and other Terror Squad Puerto Ricans of the world – those who share an affinity with black culture – can.
The distinctions can be confusing – for example, CNN host Don Lemon is a “hell no – not even when he’s quoting the president”, whereas Bill Clinton is a “he probably shouldn’t say it neither, but I wouldn’t be crazy mad if he did”.
If this all sounds confusing, it’s because it is. There’s no hard science – many notable African Americans, including Black(ish) actor Tracee Ellis Ross, don’t use the word.
Others believe in “reclaiming” it – allowing black people to have a word that white people can’t use redistributes some kind of power, at least over that word. It’s interesting to note, for example, that Eminem – who may have had permission based on his proximity to black culture – has never used it in a song.
It’s also worth reminding people that this is not a literal fight over a word. Because anyone, technically, can say the N-word – alone, in the comfort of their own homes. Those complaining about not being able to use it are usually just people who want to say it in public, bringing up a whole host of other questions (Do they not care about the visceral reaction some have to it? Why not?)
These questions apply to Rodriguez – perhaps she should have watched this tutorial on how not to say the N-word when singing your favourite rap songs.