Defending ‘Nigga’ Use… … …

For obvious reasons, the term ‘nigga’ is divisive. I am not going to refer to the term as the ‘n-word’ as if when I say it, a former slaves’ star in the universe in extinguished. It is a real word, regardless of its origin and tradition.

Saying ‘nigga’ still brings back a collective cultural memory of the years through which African Americans were routinely referred to in ways designed to destroy their self-esteem and remind black people of the unjustly-subservient status people of color occupied from the day they were bought to the Americas. For many, ‘nigga’ harken back to the days when a man felt powerless to assert his humanity. The history of the word itself then, for some, is sufficient justification for outrage whenever the vibrations of the word are parted from someone’s lips.

No matter how a white man referred to his human chattel —African, Colored, Negro or Negress, or even his slaves actual name- he was referring to what was legally his. And every interaction with this man, even apparently harmless ones, served as a constant reminder of the black man’s toiling space in the American hierarchy. Even after slavery, white people referred to black people as an effort to remind them that any personal efforts to develop dignity were futile. Being called a nigger reminded blacks– no matter how many businesses a black man owned, how many children’s schooling he was able to afford, or the beautiful happy family he successfully created– his city, nation, and world still viewed him as an unworthy citizen. A simple utterance of ‘nigger’ reminds a generation of people of a malicious era and visions of white people angrily holding signs that read “no niggers.” I thoroughly understand and appreciate the desire for people to sanction any language, idiom, expression or treatment that even slightly bring back memories of horror. However, I also understand how language works, and how language survives.

What I am arguing here is that it is possible for people to understand the destructive power of a term while simultaneously using it. And the use of the term itself does not destroy nor embolden how we feel or felt. Civil rights activist and Ambassador Andrew Young once retold a story about the night before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot to his death. Joking around about the catfish Young brought King from the store, Dr. King made a remark that included the word ‘nigga’. I am not making a fallacious appeal to authority, here; but I do find it fascinating and telling that a man to whom the word was thrown at in every city and every turn, he was still perceptive enough to draw the line between offensive use of the word and an innocuous use of it.

Dr. King was not the only one to be called ‘nigger’ and say ‘nigga’ simultaneously. The word is survived by slaves and other victims of racism who lamented the term in some contexts and used it with impunity in others. Men and women who marched for respect, recognition and dignity every day and night were also frequent users of the word (ofcourse, we know not ALL did). Yet, they were also very sensitive to the word when used by those that were attempting to remind them of their “place” in the national stratosphere.

‘Nigga’ is not a term of endearment. Do not let anyone get away with saying that. No term independent of context has any value. A sarcastic reference to someone as a genius is malicious, just as an underhanded reference to someone as ‘master’ can be. Context means everything.

However, ‘Nigga’ has evolved even while having never really changed. As African American culture gained greater access to media outlets and as it becomes more-mainstream, there have been certain expressions in African American culture that have gained wider acclaim. Clothing styles, the prominence of personalized style, the popularity of sneakers, hairstyles (braids, fades, high tops, dreadlocks, etc) are a few that stick out. Not coincidentally, just as African-American imagery has been proliferated throughout the world, so have certain forms of language.

The cat came out the bag. We found out that black people call each other ‘niggas,’ call white people ‘crackers,’ call police ‘pigs’ and ‘5.0.’

This is what the issue is about. It is not so much about the use of the word but that once it got popularized that we use it, it could lead to others using it (in other words, if white people did not know we used it, this conversation would be pointless). For those that still care about not wanting to feel like a second-class citizen in the eyes of white Americans and others, the word ‘nigga,’ and the cultural memory of the term may bring one down a peg or two. It is a fair emotion.

However, we should NOT chastise those for whom the use of the word does not affect their self-esteem. And if they do not think it does, it would be paternal in nature to assume that it did without admission. For many, ‘nigga’ is so non-offensive and commonplace that it is how they refer to people in general regardless of race, class, gender or origin.

It’s like having an overweight cousin whom the family benevolently refers to as ‘Fatso’. For that individual, it is perfectly fine for those who are in on the narrative for them to be called that. Just because we know ‘Fatso’ to be a term that people have used to maliciously refer to someone overweight does not mean we need to tell Fatso how to feel, even if you yourself are overweight and have been called that. It is also fair for Fatso to beat you down if you are outside of his narrative and lack permission to refer to them that way.

For this generation of black people, a white man calling a black man a nigger is only an inefficient effort to destroy his self-esteem. Our skin’s tougher (in a cultural sense). We’ve tired of caring what some may think or believe about black people. And that is a wonderful and liberating feeling. But most importantly, we’re perceptive enough to choose when to care about calling and being called ‘nigga.’ Just like King was.

Let’s face it. People will continue to use the word—white and black alike. There will be black people negatively affected by its use, and black people who are indifferent to it. But let them decide how they feel about it without one trying to tell each other how to feel when the word is said. All you can do is demand they not call you a ‘nigga’.

Non-black people: Be cautious of your use. And be prepared to handle the confrontation if a black person is outraged, and be prepared to handle the reaction of an indifferent one. And because we’re perceptive enough to choose when to care, the same black man may react differently based on context. You must decide if your desire to say the word is worth a swift and just kick in the face, because the ass-whooping will be totally understood for the reasons I have stated above. And the response will be fueled by my ancestral memory. And yours.

Is the word hurtful? Yes. Is the word harmless? Yes.  The word has power because we allow it to have power. Just try to to see the position of those who have determined the word will mean what they want it to mean when they want it to mean it. Like all words in language, some things are allowed to remain complex.

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