This past September, I unexpectedly met Gina Rodriguez in Toronto. It was my friend’s birthday and on a last-minute whim we decided to hit up a nightclub. As we waited outside in the long entry line, we noticed Rodriguez and her group of friends entering the club. In disbelief, I walked up to her and gave a loud, drunken speech about her undeniable acting talent and the positive impact of her show, Jane the Virgin. Her group of friends loved my enthusiasm, and Rodriguez seemed to appreciate the flattery—she thanked me before getting whisked away into the club.
Needless to say I was a fan. Her show, which touched on themes of feminism, immigration and maintaining healthy relationships, was one of my absolute faves. I watched it religiously and cried like a baby when the series finally came to an end.
And it’s why I was completely gutted last week, when Rodriguez posted an Instagram story of herself singing along to a Fugees’ song. In the video, she says the N-word. The clip was deleted from her Instagram shortly after.
For some people, Rodriguez made a mistake that was easily forgivable: She herself is a racialized woman. She didn’t say the word with a hard -er ending. And she apologized later the same day. For others, it was unforgivable.
The moment Rodriguez chose to say the N-word, I was forced to make that decision: Was this something I could look past? Could I separate Gina Rodriguez from her character Jane? It felt like choosing between my Black identity and a role model I had grown to love.
For me and many other Black folks, her apology made things worse — it seemed insincere. Instead of showing awareness for why her actions were wrong, Rodriguez claimed she was just singing one of her favourite songs. Soon after, she posted a written apology to “the community of colour.” Instead of apologizing directly to the Black community—the community that was affected by her use of the word —she refused to acknowledge us directly. Her actions showed how far removed she is from understanding the Black experience.
Gina Rodriguez is not Black. Yes, as a Latina she is a woman of colour, but she will never face the same specific oppression, judgements, criticisms or obstacles that Black women face. Her use of the N-word is inexcusable to me. If I, as a Black person, can skip over the N-word in certain songs, why can’t she? This is a bigger question I’ve been forced to ask myself way too often: If Black people can refrain from using the N-word in front of their parents, at work or in a public setting, why is it so hard for non-Black people to refrain from using the word entirely?
In my personal life, I have unfriended several non-Black “friends” and their enablers for using the N-word. These ex-friends are people of colour who are not Black. They—like many other POC who use the N-word—believe that because they are not white, they should get a free pass to say the word. And, trust me, they defend that right.
In one instance, I had asked a friend several times over the five years I had known them to stop using the word. Each time, I explained why they should not use it, but it kept happening. Then one night, when we were hanging out and it was “casually” dropped in conversation yet again, I had enough. I sternly asked them to remove the word from their vocabulary permanently, especially around me. But they still couldn’t accept my request. Despite not being Black, they found it appropriate to advocate for their usage of the N-word, launching into a debate. I felt hurt that my feelings were disregarded and the issue wasn’t taken seriously. That’s when I snapped—I yelled at them for being ignorant and disrespectful, then I left the apartment. To this day, they have not apologized and I no longer associate with them. My Black culture is not up for debate.
Read this next: I’m Calling It: Chris Pratt Is the Worst Chris
Black people constantly do this kind of emotional labour; we are forced to cancel relationships, cancel activities, cancel role models, cancel work friends, cancel people who we adore from our lives due to racial ignorance. Despite the fact that we may appear incredibly strong, this is an exhausting and painful experience.
Black culture has become a commodity—it’s used by everyone. The same Black girls who were once bullied as children for having fuller lips, now have friends with lip fillers who are praised for their “exotic” looks. Music that was once deemed “ratchet” is now played in white hair salons that charge an extra fee for “textured” (Black) hair.
Meanwhile Black people ourselves are often denied the opportunity to celebrate our Blackness. We are persecuted, denied jobs, racially profiled, disproportionately stopped and carded by police, limited by the education system, expected to display negative stereotypes and killed for our Blackness. So that which belongs to us —including the N-word — should only be used by us.
Whether you’re a celebrity or a regular citizen, if you are not Black, understand the N-word does not belong to you. Understand your privilege and stop putting Black people through the unnecessary emotional labour of explaining why it’s not OK for you to say it. Stop asking your Black friends to choose between their self-respect and their relationship with you.
Read this next: How to Be a Better Friend to Black Women
I’m not fond of ending friendships or persecuting celebrities for their mistakes, but if I have to choose between the relationship I have with others and my own identity as a Black person—I will choose me every time.