I think one of the toughest things to discuss in certain settings would be the use of the n-word.
A long time ago, “nigger” meant one thing. It was a dirty and offensive term evolved from “negro” and was directed at African-Americans. In this “new age,” though, the word has several connotations. It is used for more reasons than I probably know about, most of which are not SUPPOSED to be hurtful. Still though, there’s that stigma. We can still very easily offend people by using this word. Well, white people can. Black people can apparently say it all they want. Or can they? I don’t know. This whole thing is scattered all over my mind and there are so many opinions and so much pointless research to do that the honest purpose of this article is to organize my thoughts into one place.
I’ll try to separate the discussion into the following categories: black (or PoC) usage, white usage, hip hop culture, television, and education. And these are not my personal opinions (I find it hard to form that many right now), this is more observational.
It’s difficult to determine the exact point in time the black community decided to take the n-word and claim it for themselves. Or ourselves. For many of us, it’s an important word in our vocabulary, and sometimes even a necessary one. A word that was first used by white people to tell us that we are subhuman, and that our spirits are bound to be broken if not already, is now a word that we own and control. We use it to say “friend,” or “dude,” or even “boyfriend.” We use it as a way to embrace our culture and our history rather than to cower from it. It is also a shared concept among us. Because I am black myself, it is understood that if I refer to you as a “nigga” or “my nigga,” I am not intending to insult you. When you tease your little sibling, they can handle it because it is not meant to harm you and it comes from a safer place. When someone outside of the family teases your little sibling, though, you are more than ready to fight that person. That may not have been a good analogy, but it wasn’t a bad one either. “Nigga” is our word now, I suppose. And while the offensive connotations are still there, we live in this modern culture that allows black people to toss the word around amongst themselves. I am not saying this concept is right. I am not saying it’s wrong. It is, however, not going away. Far as I know.
It is not uncommon for a black person to feel uncomfortable when he or she hears a white person use “their” word. Because of the…I don’t want to say “democratization” of the word…but because of the colloquial way in which we use it, many white people have started to join in. For all intents and purposes I will go ahead and say that this is not okay.
To be honest, I have white friends who use “nigga” in the same ‘friendly’ way that black people do. It normally goes right past me. It is not something by which I’m typically bothered. Should I be? Maybe. But to me, that’s an effect of the changes in context over the years for this word. I don’t hear it the way my grandmother hears it. That is the most fascinating idea here. I mean, look what we’ve done.
I’ve noticed this, though…when I am in a group of mostly white people, and there is rap music playing, and they all sing along and say “nigga” like they say it every day…I get extremely uncomfortable. Why? Is it because this is a blatant display of black culture appropriation? Is it the way everyone seemed so relaxed in being able to say it? Is it because I don’t like that the main reason white people say it is because they think it’s “cool?” I think it may be a combination of these.
“How come you can say it, but you get offended when I say it?”
*sigh*… It is not about being “offensive.” It’s about history and privilege and control. White people know the history of the word, but they have the privilege to ignore it. There are way too many instances of white engaging in behavior that is culturally black simply because they think it’s fun or cool or trendy or hip. Black people prefer to have control over the word because it is a history we choose to own. White people shouldn’t be asking why they can’t say it; they should be asking why they want to.
This is arguably where most of the controversy around “nigga” comes from. “Nigger” does not really apply here; won’t hear much of that in rap music unless the artist is being intentionally ironic. “Nigga” has played a big role in the hip hop industry for decades. It may have even been the true start of the phenomena of black people “taking the word back.” This word literally is the “N” in the extremely successful and controversial rap group N.W.A.
It’s actually rare to NOT hear “nigga” or “niggas” in hip hop music today. I’m not so sure if it’s much of a movement anymore as it is just a space filler or a rhyming tactic. It is practically as freely spoken as the word “the.”
We all remember “My Niggas,” don’t we? The song speaks for itself. “Niggas” could have been replaced with “friends” and the song would have conveyed the exact same meaning, but not the same rhythm or depth.
There’s no sense in walking through every instance of rappers using this word, let alone why they did. But I think it’s important to listen to the lyrics more carefully, and maybe try to realize for ourselves the underlying principles. It may SEEM like “nigga” is thrown around in these songs for no reason, but I don’t think we should be so quick to say so. There was, is, and very well might always be a reason for usage of “nigga” for musical effect. It could be just artistic. It could be an embracing of the culture. It could be a rhyming effect. This is a good and relevant discussion topic.
I’ve noticed that when I hear “nigga” on television, it’s used for comic effect. The first gif in this article is taken from “The Boondocks,” a comedy show created by cartoonist Aaron McGruder. The show focuses heavily on modern black culture, and the n-word is frequently spoken by the characters to emphasize this, and sometimes to make you laugh.
The reason television usage is so interesting (to me) is because television is a medium where you CANNOT say certain words. But if you watch a “black” show, you might hear it several times. That’s okay, though, right?
I’d like to refer to two television comics, Louis C.K. and Chris Rock. I found both of their takes on the n-word interesting and I think they both made somewhat valid points surrounding it. Louis’s bit focuses on the word itself and its usage (or lack thereof), and Rock’s bit focuses on the “difference” between “black people” and “niggas.”
Okay, so, the n-word has become so prevalent, that Louis C.K., one of the whitest men on television, actually called another white person “nigger” in his head.
And Chris Rock touched on the point that a “nigga” is a separate person from a “black person.”
These writing topics are what get me through this life. This will forever be the kind of thing I want to talk about. There are so many different perspectives and viewpoints to consider and just…humans, man. They don’t disappoint.
Okay, hold on. I’m not talking about, like, teachers calling kids “nigga” as a teaching method. I promise you I will be family friendly. What I mean by education usage is the ability of education systems to do a little educating on things such as the n-word. If you’re a teacher, and you catch a student saying “nigga” or “nigger,” you’re probably supposed to do something. But what would that something be? “Don’t say that word, Connor, it’s a bad word.” … Connor’s gonna need a little more than that. Why can I say this word here, not say it there, say it to this person, or not say it to that person?
I specifically remember being in percussion class in ninth grade, and it was a class containing about a dozen black students, two white students, and a white teacher. Total. We would toss around “nigga” here and there because we could. I mean, we’re black. My teacher was not very fond of this, though. He said the following (keep in mind this man is white):
That word is very offensive. It OFFENDS me. I don’t care if you’re black, white, blue, green, orange, purple, or polka-dotted, I don’t want to hear that word.
WHAT HAPPENS NOW? IT OFFENDS BLACK PEOPLE, AND NOW IT OFFENDS WHITE PEOPLE? THIS IS ALL SO CONFUSING. WE MUST BE EDUCATED.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Six letters have given me a much harder time than I ever thought they would.
As people, we get irritated if we constantly have to worry about political correctness. It’s annoying to have to always “watch what we say.” But if we don’t take the time to choose our words wisely, and learn about where our words come from, and WHY we are using them, we may end up causing more damage than we already have in the past. Let’s assume “nigger” is used by white people in a derogatory context, and “nigga” is used by black people to take ownership of their culture. This is an oversimplified claim, but it does capture the essence of what these words are and have become.
Despite the meaning of such words, and despite the way they may or may not be used today, I will not forget who I am, where I come from, or what I choose to stand for. It is crucial that we (regardless of color) always be sure to remember.
And hey, we’re all human.