He said it just like that. He said it plainly, obviously, and dismissively; throwing it away the way one throws away a banana peel.
Except it did not go away, it lingered in the air for everyone to choke on awkwardly; but, only I owned it.
Most shockingly, I owned it fully. I am a Georgetown Student, a Jumpstart Corps Member, a high school valedictorian, an independent woman. Yet, I owned the word that reduced me to nothing more than a violated piece of property, the word that transported me back to a time I never knew but always felt a part of.
The moment that he said the word, I did not immediately react. We were all a bit confused as to what a “Teenage Ninja Mutant Nigger” was, and why he had been watching them all day. He explained that it was just TNMT with voiceovers of black people, and proceeded to laugh.
I had been silent for this whole interaction, and decided it best to remain silent. But, then my friend looked directly towards me with a knowing stare and asked me how I felt about it.
As the sole “black” person in a ring of “white” people, it seemed to be my obligation to take ownership and to feel offended on behalf of “black people” everywhere, even though the term was not directed towards me or any real person.
Could I be offended?
There seems to be a niche for it in American urban vernacular, wedged between obscenity and colloquial necessity. It is more than bleep out on the radio. The term comes with a culture and a connotation, bringing phrases and meanings to a new level. Sometimes, I feel that I need to say it to express the intensity of the statement; and other times, phrases do not work without it. I am just as guilty. I use the term—probably more than he does. Effectively, taking offense would be to brandish the racial double standard.
Could I be offended then?
The prevalence of the term in pop culture is almost desensitizing. I hear it every day. Unfortunately, the word passes through my ears easily. I do not flinch as it slips from my own lips.
Then, why did his use of the word nigger, affront me so deeply?
Er Vs. A
I want to think that it is as simple as “-er” versus “-a”.
End the term with the former and you have just said the most obscene, racially-charged expletive in our culture.
End the term with the latter, and it is as if all the weight of the word falls away. And you fall as well; you fall in with a young generation molded to some extent by hip hop culture.
I want to think that is almost like a separate word. As long as we stay on one side of the pronunciation, we can carry along blissfully in the new reality we have created for the word. This is what I like to think . . . and I know it is delusional to believe.
The words are just two links on one unbreakable chain. The word is a chain. It is a chain that we fight against, yet tighten simultaneously.
Because at the end of the day, when I looked up at the boy who said nigger, I saw a ruddy Caucasian, American male. . .
And that made all the difference as to why it was offensive. That is brutal and backwards, I know, but honest.
PLAIN AND SIMPLE: Nigger/Nigga is our word. Black only. One definition from Urban Dictionary defines it as:
“A derogatory word used by black people to retain (and exploit) their ancestors’ past as slaves. Many blacks claim it’s a term of endearment (akin to brother, homie, etc.), but in no way can it be as its root meaning is ignorance. It’s another double standard of racism in our current time”
The word is a chain —a self-imposed shackle, representing the most insidious of defense mechanisms: We bash ourselves before others can get to us.
Giants of hip-hop culture and social media, who spew out the words every other minute, are not immune to this dual identity.
Take Kanye West, for example. Disregarding musical preference, no one can say that he is not successful. He has traveled to places that some people dream about, experienced the opulent lifestyle of fantasies, saw his work bring him fame. He is free in every sense.
Yet, I remember watching his infamous radio interview on Sway in the Morning, and not seeing any semblance of that. I just saw a black man angry at the world, like a rabid dog foaming at the mouth—identifying himself as a real nigga in his songs, yet hating to be seen that way—shackled by this complicated racial identity brought on by being black in America.
Before nigga means brother or homie, it means black.
Before nigger means being contemptible, ignorant, or inferior, it means being black.
Nationwide, worldwide, that is the case—or at least, blacks like me, feel that to be the case. Thus, no matter what we say in our songs, in jokes, or to our friends, we carry around that fear that others will remember our inferiority everywhere we go. When someone does—when that white boy did— hint to those fears, the word nigger becomes paralyzing.
At this point, the counterargument chimes in. With indignation, they retort: “Well you put this on yourselves! You want to call each other niggas. You want to segregate yourselves.”
That may be true, and sometimes purposeful. I think that exclusivity comes from the entrenched notion that blacks are at the bottom, and solidarity is the only way to combat this. However, fighting against something is not quite moving forward. The only way I can see the stigma of the word dissipating is if we completely leave it behind—stop looking back and drop the significance of the word.
I am sure that a lot of non-black folks would like if we did. They would like us to detach all the history and meaning and wipe a clean slate.
There are young people, like Tyler the Creator, who feel like that is all you have to do. If you stop assigning meaning to something, then it can have no effect.
Say it, don’t say it. It is not who I am, I don’t care.
That statement is easy to say, just like nigga is easy to say.
But when I sat in the circle of five people I knew and two that I did not, I felt very UNeasy. When I sat in the circle as the one person, the only person, who would ever have to prove that I am not a nigga if it came down to it, I could not help but care.
After all this, I still don’t know how I feel about the word.
-Jada Bullen, Slant Writer