My love/hate thing with the word nigger (or nigga, depending how cool you think you are) goes back some years.
It began back when I was a very young kid. Walking home from school one day, I found an N.W.A tape. At the time, the foursome from Compton California were the most controversial act in music. Founded by Eric “Eazy E” Wright, the act grabbed headlines when their song, “Fuck The Police”, became an underground smash. Even then, the song resonated with many who lived in the inner city who can’t remember a time when the Officer Friendly was a real person.
Anyway, the group went on to become pioneers in many ways. Their abrasive, in your face sound was something never heard from before in the rap world. Combine that with their bold use of the word “nigga” and awesome branding of their name, and you can see why they became popular amongst a younger generation who we’re smack dab between the civil rights and drug era. They made it feel as a word that was once taboo and only said in the late nights among friends, was now something of our own. Something that we can say proudly, but no one else could.
Problem is, that’s not what happened and my dad predicted it at the time.
When I came home at the time and my dad saw the tape, he asked me, “what is this.” Now by this time, I haven’t even put it in my cassette player. I was still going off what I heard other people around the way said.
So I told him about the group, or what I heard.
My father was raised in an era when, like Kanye said, “clean water was only served to the fairer skin.” Growing up in Kinston North Carolina, my dad often told me stories about being openly discriminated against and having to deal with overt racism all his life. So as he stared at the cover of the tape, I remember him saying to me, “they call themselves niggers?”
Now, it didn’t dawn why what he was about to say to me would be important until years later, but his words would become something that would sit with me for life.
“How can four Black men call themselves niggers?”
Like Sway, I didn’t have the answers at the time.
At this time in my life, I wasn’t even old to buy the tape and none of my friends ever said the word out loud. Matter of fact, this was the first time I was hearing the world out-loud from a person to be honest.
It was his next sentence that would become tattooed into my mind and be the reason for this story today.
“Y’all gonna mess around and before you know it, everybody going to be able to say it and you’re not going to be able to say nothing about it.” He then banned rap music from the house simply because he couldn’t rap his mind around the fact that these young kids, teens at the time, could name themselves that with pride. (Later he would lift the ban, thanks to MC Lyte and his new favorite song, “Cappuccino”. That’s a whole neither story)
This was also before a series of over-educated types explained to us how our generation took control of the word, made it ours, therefore taking the power of racism out of it. As far as he was concerned, he only knew the word to be used life this:
“Where are you going nigger?” “What you got in your hand, nigger?” “Sorry, we don’t serve niggers.”
My father gave me a lot of good advice growing up. But I’ll aways remember that line. It became a reality for me in high school.
As I got to high school, I became a bigger fan of rap. By then, I’d heard the word nigger so much, it became part of my daily routine. I’d call my friends, “my nigger.” They greet me as such as well. We’d say it out loud in stores, on buses, in class. No one could stop us dammit, this was our word or so I thought.
Then White boy Matt changed the game on me.
He was a White friend of mine. He was cool kid for the most part. He loved rap, played basketball, dressed like we did at the time. He was the type of kid who we would say, “had a pass,” in street terms.
He went to school with us, despite the fact that he lived in a predominately white part of Boston. Me and my friends were probably his only real interaction with Black people on a day-to-day basis. Matt never would’ve been distinct enough to stand-out in my memory for so long if it wasn’t for this day.
Me and Matt skipped school one day like I did 42 other times that year. When we would skip, we wouldn’t do anything. We’d go to the library or the music store or just ride the bus all day.
Today, we’re on the orange line heading to the south end to play basketball. While walking to the YMCA that we all kicked it by, he said these words to me that altered my whole way of thinking.
“Rodney, your my nigger.”
I paused for a second. From all the stories I’ve been told about the racist past our country and from watching many movies where a White man would say something like that to a Black man I felt as if I should be beating the brakes off him right now.
I wasn’t sure how to react. I thought to myself as we walked and he continued to speak, “should I knock him out? Shouldn’t we be scrapping by now?” And just like that, he broke my train of thinking again when he said, “it’s not a bad thing. It’s cool to say, everybody else said so. If you was Puerto Rican, I’d call you my Spic.”
I went and told some of our mutual friends and they were indifferent about it. No one seemed to think it was a big deal. I did. I thought it was some bullshit actually, but majority rules, especially among high school friends, so I shut about and wasted another day. But I never forgot.
From that day, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with that word. Actually, more of a tolerate/hate relationship. I still use it from time to time, even though I cringe when I hear others do it. As I read a few blogs this morning two separate instances brought to mind the convo my dad had with me. As I read I wonder, was my dad right? Have we allowed pop culture and music to not take the power out of an ugly word, but really just confuse it to the point where we use it all kind of ways?
Example, recently blogger and brand strategist Karen Civil was called a nigger (hence the spelling) by a Barry Law school student. The school issued an apology, later the girl retracted saying that her phone was hacked. But the damage was done and the conversation was, “how dare she call her a nigger?”
Of course, the girl was White who attempted to call Civil out of her name so for the most part people were upset ad rightly so. She used it as disrespect.
A few hours later hour, Karreuche Tran, longtime companion (that’s the best way I could put it really) said on Twitter, “these niggas get all in their feelings when you break up with them”
As I read her tweet, I was as offended as I was reading what was said to Karen Civil. To my shock, I was in the minority this time again.
A few people chimed in saying what she just said was disrespectful. The floods of people came in with their capes on saying everything from, “her dad is Black, so it’s ok” to “she said nigga not nigger.”
And she’s not alone. Whether you acknowledge it or not, many other races freely use “nigga” (not to be confused with nigger). Asians, Latinos. Pick a race or culture and they’ve adopted this word now.
I was at a showcase recently where a group of White kids got up and one performed a song where the n-word was littered through out it. And he performed this song in front of his mom, who filmed his performance proudly. Luckily for the kid, a judge at the showcase explained to him how that song would get him beat down depending where you performed it at and suggested they stop with the song all together.
To their defense, I don’t think they didn’t think they did anything wrong.
They’re confused like everyone else is about the word and it’s meaning. As far as they know, it’s another way to say, “what’s up.”
9 times out of 10, when you hear the word being used, it’s being used in a derogatory way. It’s being used to demean a person. To make the person feel lesser. The fact that we flipped the spelling and meaning of it just to make it rhyme with words like, “bigger” and “I’m clocking figures” hasn’t changed that. If you need proof, just see the law student who called Karen Civil a nigger mentions! They need her fired from life yo! They want her ex spelled from earth. Now a simple changing of the lettering would’ve has more people explaining this woman’s background and how her rich ancestry gives her carte blanche to use it and we’re tripping!
There’s no denying that she was attempting to be disrespectful, she could easily turn this around and say, “I didn’t mean it in a negative way. I mean, I hear it all throughout the day. I didn’t know it was wrong.”
That would be ridiculous, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was used as a defense. I mean, she’d have a point if she did. Because we took the power out the word, remember?
It shouldn’t be offensive at all if any power was actually taken out of the word, but that wasn’t the case. That was a lie we sold to ourselves over and over again.
This is not me advocating for censorship in any way. Speaking how we feel is a protected right in our country. What I want us to do is be realistic.
When you can turn on the radio and hear, “long as my niggas love me,” or the number 1 song in the country is called, “Hot Nigga” and other songs where the word isn’t even bleeped out (mind you, there are plenty of other words you couldn’t dare play on the radio, but somehow nigga slips past often)
The more you hear it casually used, the less powerful it does become. But not because we stripped it of its real meaning. It becomes powerless because of the frequency you hear it. It just become normal conversation.
The same kid casually saying “nigga” cause his friends or pop culture said its cool to use will also know that if I stare you in your eyes and say, “nigger” it don’t mean we friends.
Owning the word, to me means that it’s ours. Meaning nobody else can say it period! What we did was just make commercially acceptable. We turned the n-word into many other things Blacks took ownership of that we made so popular that everyone else felt the need to own it too and our generous nature said, “ok.”
While it might me too late to take back the power and restore its original meaning, it’s not too late to still feel disrespected when you hear it.
And that doesn’t matter if it was a racist saying “nigger” or your best friend saying, “my nigga.”
By any definition, it’s not something anybody should really want to be.