The other day while browsing the classics section of the book store, I stumbled across a book called, "Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man", by J.W. Johnson. Written in 1912, it tells of the experiences of a biracial man who was raised for a short time among upper-class white people, but later came to live in mixed society. Thumbing through the pages, I came across the following paragraph:
In the back parlor a crowd was sitting and standing around the walls of the room watching an exciting and noisy game of pool. I walked back and joined this crowd to watch the game, and principally to get away from the drinking party. The game was really interesting, the players being quite expert, and the excitement was heightened by the bets which were being made on the result. At times the antics and remarks of both players and spectators were amusing. When, at a critical point, a player missed a shot he was deluged by those financially interested in his making it with a flood of epithets synonymous to "chump"; while from the others he would be jeered by such remarks as "@!$%#, dat cue ain't no hoe-handle." I noticed that among this class of colored men the word "@!$%#" was freely used in about the same sense as the word "'fellow," and sometimes as a term of almost endearment; but I soon learned that its use was positively and absolutely prohibited to white men.
Oddly enough, I had just that morning witnessed an online discussion in which several people were debating the use of the "n" word. Some were angry that as white people they were not allowed to use the word freely; one person even accused the forbidding of the word to whites as "playing the race card". Most of the arguments in favor of allowing white people to use the word included the fact that rappers use it. The passage from the book that I quoted above demonstrates that even 100 years ago the word was taboo for use by white people, yet acceptable for black people to use among themselves. After buying the book, it became clear to me that the passage was meant to illustrate the difference between the way white people used the word (with hostility and hatred) and how black people used the word (jokingly, with affection). It showed the huge disparity in how he and other black characters in the book were made to feel, depending upon the race of the person using the word against them.
I've always likened this taboo to the fact that friends and family members will often call each other epithets that outsiders are prohibited from using. For example, there are women that refer to themselves as "bitch" (or jokingly refer to their friends by that epithet); yet if men tried to call women "bitches" with the excuse that "women do it, so why can't I", I doubt they'd get away with it. Imagine a man on the street referring to your, mother, wife, sister, or daughter by that word, demanding the right to do so because he heard some pop stars using it! I doubt many people, if any, would accept that excuse.
In the end, it comes down to this: why on earth would anyone feel the need to use that hateful epithet against a group to which they don't belong ?