DISCLAIMER: This blog post includes racially charged topics and an abundant use of the (unedited) N-word. If that bothers you, stop reading now. This post should be read in its entirety before forwarding to others lest you be accused of passing on NSFW materials. Know that I wrote this with love in my heart. I’m not mad. I just felt the need to address an issue.
I conducted my first sociology experiment before I knew what the word meant. I was 14 and working my first Summer job at a hospital in Detroit. The program was a part of Detroit Public Schools and it afforded the opportunity for teenagers aged 14+ to work over the Summer with their parents permission. There was at least a dozen black teenagers working in different areas of that hospital for about two months. During that time I was studying African-American literature and I was reading a lot of Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, et al. In a lot of classic African-American literature and history books the word nigger took on a few different tones. At the root of the word and the intention of the user, there was no kindness. Negro may have had roots in describing skin color. Over time variations of the word have become increasingly pejorative and offensive. But, for the sake of this post I don’t really need to give a history of the N-word, as it’s commonly referred to today. I’m writing this post because the definitions of words should be more important than how we mean them. If you find yourself saying, “I didn’t mean it like that” then you’ve done a poor job of communicating. I’m also writing this to remind all who read this that no variation of the word nigger should ever be considered acceptable. I’m writing this for all humans of all shades, colors, and backgrounds. Most importantly, it is not our word as many black people choose to describe it. Now, back to that sociology experiment.
When I noticed all of my teenaged colleagues calling each other nigger, I began to wonder if they knew what the word meant. I wondered if they were aware that use of the word implies a general lack of intelligence and sophistication. So, I decided to use a different pejorative term when speaking to them. In place of the word nigger I inserted the word fool. “What’s up my fool!” “Fool, you trippin!” “Fool, what!?” As you can imagine, I received a few confused looks. As Cornel West points out, there is a certain rhythm to using the word nigger and replacing it can create odd sentences. “There’s a certain rhythmic seduction to the word. If you speak in a sentence, and you have to say cat, companion, or friend, as opposed to nigger, then the rhythmic presentation is off. That rhythmic language is a form of historical memory for black people… When Richard Pryor came back from Africa, and decided to stop using the word onstage, he would sometimes start to slip up, because he was so used to speaking that way. It was the right word at the moment to keep the rhythm together in his sentence making.” [citation] I inserted the Cornel West quote to highlight the rhythm of colloquial dialect, not to defend the use of the word nigger.
I continued using the word fool despite the awkward rhythm of my sentences. Then something interesting happened. My friends started to get annoyed. Some got upset and one cat even threatened to beat my ass. “Man! I ain’t gone be to many more ‘fools’! Stop calling me that.” His fists were clenched and he was ready to fight as his chest heaved with frustration. At that point I chose to end the experiment. I gave them all a quasi-apology as I explained my actions. “You all call each other fool 100 times every day. You just wrap up the word fool in the familiar package of nigger. If you paid more attention to the meaning of the word than the word itself, you’d be angry with each other for the constant disrespect you have for one another.” No one really gave a shit about my soap box speech. They kept calling each other nigger this and nigger that. I didn’t keep in touch with any of them when I moved away from Michigan after high school. That was when I began to hear the word in different contexts.
I moved to Atlanta after high school for my first degree. As a black person, your attitude towards the word changes when you’re called a nigger in the south. Since then, I’ve lived in Las Vegas, San Diego, and now here in the Bay Area. I’m not going to recount all of the times/situations in which I’ve been called a nigger. I want to point out the four nigger situations (not to be confused with a nigger moment) that bother me the most.
1.) When white people are offended by the usage of the word nigger. A woman once called me an “asshole nigger” as I asked her to leave my restaurant. She was loud enough for most of the diners to hear her. A white woman became audibly upset and made many dramatic gasps as a result. Why did that bother me? a.) Because no one was fucking talking to her! b.) I wasn’t that upset about it so why was she? c.) Most importantly no one has ever called her a nigger (at least not with the intent to disrespect). Dear White People, You have the right to be upset by whatever you choose. You also have the privilege of no one ever calling you such a hateful word. Please stop being so goddamned dramatic when you hear/read a racially-specific pejorative term that’s not directed at your race. Don’t make this about you.
2.) When black people call me nigger. I was driving (admittedly) too fast through a neighborhood. As a black man jaywalked across the street, he shouted at me. “Slow down, nigga! We got kids here.” Why did that bother me? Because I didn’t know that fool! When any stranger approaches me with hostility it sparks my fight or flight response. Dear Black People, Can we have a conversation without calling each other niggers or fools? Can we just treat each other like humans? That would be nice. Honesty note: Yes, I have used the word nigger in casual conversation with my peers. I’m not pretending to be blacker than thou or beyond reproach on this matter. Why have I used the word? See above for Cornel West’s quote on the rhythmic properties of the word during conversation within black culture. That brings me to my next point.
3.) When black people attempt to defend nigger as our word. When I hear black people try to distinguish between “nigga” and “nigger” to claim that there’s a difference in the intended use of the word I want to slap those fools. I hear blacks claim that nigger is our word and that white people shouldn’t use it.Why does that bother me? Dear Black People, If you call your momma a bitch all of the time, people will recognize that you don’t respect her. People will begin to think of her as a bitch and it’s a matter of time before they call your momma a bitch. If you call your friends niggers or fools, people will recognize that you don’t respect your friends. People will begin to think of your friends as niggers and fools and it’s a matter of time before they call your friends niggers and fools. Don’t ever call yourself something that you don’t want to be called by lovers or strangers. (This also applies to women that call themselves and their girlfriends bitches. You don’t want men calling you that so don’t set the precedent.)
4.) When non-black people use the word nigger to refer to themselves, their non-black friends, or black people (as a misguided attempt to be affable). I’m a student at the most racially diverse campus in the continental United States. When I hear a mixed race (non-black) 20-something casually use the word nigger to refer to his friends I want to slap that fool. Why does that bother me? Because that kid with an Asian mother and a Russian father may have been called some pejorative terms during his life. I’m willing to bet that he’s never been called a nigger as a means of vitriolic contempt. I’ve never been called a FOB. I don’t know what it feels like to hear that term thrown my way. Therefore, I’m not going to call someone a FOB. Another instance occurs when non-black people have been listening to music with an abundant use of the word nigger and they think it’s acceptable to call me a nigger at a party. “What’s up nigger!”, said the white guy at the house party before I told him to shut the fuck up. My buddy reminded me to stay cool and not turn it into a thing. I left the party soon after when all of these 20-something non-blacks were singing along to nigger-filled lyrics. It just wasn’t my scene.
A note on my use of the word black to describe my race. I’m not African-American. I’ve never even visited Africa. My momma is from Fairfield, Alabama and my poppa is from Detroit. Their parents were also born in this country. Is it possible to trace my bloodline back to Africa? Possibly. My skin color is brown. My identity is black. I don’t feel the need to coat my identity with a politically correct sugar glaze. Don’t over think it or over analyze it. I am not a negro. I am not your nigga. I am not a nigger. I’m black and proud of it.