“Nigga” Is A Part Of My Vocabulary. Here’s Why » VSB

Race & Politics, Theory & Essay

“Nigga” Is A Part Of My Vocabulary. Here’s Why

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The Washington Post is currently running a comprehensive interactive about the “n-word.” Titled “Redefining the Word,” the feature gives an historical context for why nigga is entrenched in our culture and interviews dozens of people for their thoughts and feelings about the word today.

They didn’t interview me. But, if they did, this is what I would have said:

From “Why I’ll Never Stop Saying Nigga”

I love words. I love the way they sound. I love the way they look. I love learning what they mean. I love how different pronunciations—a stressed vowel sound or a pronounced vocal inflection—can give the same word multiple meanings. I love their rhythm. I love their personality. I love their etymology. And, most importantly, I love the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of them at my disposal when trying to get what’s in my head outside of it. Included in that hundreds of thousands are nigger, nigga, cunt, fuck, bitch and every other word where the word alone is enough to offend, and I love and respect language too much to permanently cut any of it out.

Interestingly enough, my knowledge of and affinity for words could be an argument for not using some of them. Since there are hundreds of thousands of them—and since I seem to be very aware of this fact—why use one I know will offend when another will suffice?

That’s the thing. Knowing exactly what words mean and exactly how you want to use them means that, in some instances, another word won’t suffice. Sure, “man,” “dog,” “cat,” “dude,” “my man,” and even “ninja” exist and work, sometimes. Most times, even. But, there are other times when only nigga can accurately convey the feeling or thought I want expressed. And, in those instances, nigga is used.

This knowledge also comes with the realization that certain words probably shouldn’t be used unless you’re completely aware of the audience. Nigga is one of those words. Not only will I not use it around “mixed” company, I won’t even use it around Black people I’m not familiar with. This isn’t self-censoring as much as it’s just being considerate. (Who said niggas don’t have feelings?)

Ironically, I don’t even say nigga that much. Aside from when I’m joking with my wife or my friends or repeating lyrics from a song, I rarely say it aloud. Same goes for pretty much every other word on the “do not say” list. If nigga was a condiment, it would be Dijon mustard.

Also, I’m very aware of the anti-nigga argument that claims its continued use is disrespectful to our ancestors. I just disagree. Wanting to completely remove a word from our cultural lexicon isn’t “honoring the past” as much as it’s window dressing. An empty gesture whose only benefit is aesthetic. Choosing to ban the word from your own mouth is fine. Insisting that we all have an obligation to do the same thing — that we all need to assess a 500-year-long context and all come to the exact same conclusion about this complicated word is not.

Damon Young

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB. He is also a columnist for GQ.com And he's working on a book of essays to be published by Ecco (HarperCollins). Damon is busy. He lives in Pittsburgh, and he really likes pancakes. Reach him at damon@verysmartbrothas.com. Or don't. Whatever.

  • MysteryMeat

    Agreed

  • uNk

    I really can not think of a single day that I have not said ngga. I use it it in so many different contexts its crazy. I even say it to myself internally….to myself lol. Im sure there are a bunch of others who do the same. The fact that this word can be used to be interpreted so many different ways is fascinating…..but there in lies the problem for me personally. A great deal of black ppl really do not consider it a derogatory term when used among each other and, well shxt other races too. This has opened the doorway for other races and nationalities to use the word too because “I dont mean it like that when I use the word.” Even though thats true from how I define the word in the contexts that I use, I just have not reached that place where I feel comfortable for other races to use it as well, especially around me. I guess that makes me a hypocrite? Idk.
    The only thing I can think to compare this to is when somebody is calling your family member something out of pocket, and then getting mad at them for it knowing damm well you call them the same thing all the time. Most would say, ” Hey only I can call him/her that, because when I say it its with love,” or somewhere along those lines.

    • BeautifullyHuman

      It’s intragroup privilege. Pretty much you can’t say it if you don’t belong to the group and have shared experiences with that group. Black folks are no different than any other group that uses a special diction to describe themselves or something belonging to their group. It’s the main reason why women can call each other b*tches and gays can refer to themselves as f*g and can get away with it, while one not belonging to that group can’t. If you don’t belong you simply can’t say it. That’s why I don’t lose any sleep when folks get in their panties when they’re not black and want to use the n-word. It’s intragroup privilege and you don’t have it. Sorry not sorry.

      • uNk

        My thoughts exactaly, thank you for wording it better lol

      • Meridian

        Pretty much. I think people throw temper tantrums when they can’t use it because they feel so close to us. It makes them feel like an outsider which can be hurtful if you’re used to being accepted by us. While that sucks for a person who chooses to see it that way, I just don’t care all that much. I don’t care about the feelings of someone who wants a historically racist term to be seen as friendly and you’re not black. I’m not obligated to give a pass or condone such a thing.

        • BeautifullyHuman

          See…here’s my thing about other folks using it. Why would you want to? I’ve never understood the fascination other ethnic groups have with the word and why they want to use it so badly. There’s nothing in my being that wants to call another person a “spic,” a “chink,” or a “fob.” Not even if it was the “cool” or “popular” thing to do. If I’m truthful, when I rap lyrics that use “d*ke” or “f*g” along those lines…I just skip over them because I don’t feel comfortable saying them knowing the pain they have caused (and still do) for some.

          I understand the hurt and the intent behind each of those words, irrespective of them not being inclusive to me but why is that hard for people to get? I understand words evolve as does semantics, but with a word that has an ugly legacy such as “n*gga” why would anyone really want to feel privy to say it, especially to the point hurt feelings and rejection become involved? I guess this is where my own cognitive dissonance comes into play, but I truly don’t get why others want to say n*gga so bad especially at the risk of their safety.

          • Meridian

            Right. To be honest, I always remove myself from conversations where other races pretend to be Stevie Wonder to how ugly and fresh such a word is. It’s completely disingenuous to act like you don’t know it’s inappropriate and why, so I don’t play into that when it comes to race relations. It’s so pervasive how excited people are to use it. How much they desire to call people that and address them as that. Regardless of someone meaning it maliciously or not, it’s repulsive that they want so badly to subject black people to something they genuinely don’t like. If I’m going to have a conversation on race relations it always starts with the accountability of the person on the other side of me. You don’t just get to escape whatever pathology you have going on that makes you yearn to use such a word and then feel good that you used it. It’s interesting that white people and even other ethnic groups don’t wanna own that or flush it out. I think it’s a necessary conversation to have.

        • BeautifullyHuman

          My original comment is in bondage, but I’m with you, i couldn’t give a d*amn about anyone in their feelings over using it. Too bad so sad.

          Paul Mooney had it right when he said ,”Everybody want to be Black but don’t nobody want to be Black.”

          Edit:

          Or was the quote “everybody want to be a n*gga…?” I’ve gotten beside myself.

      • Wild Cougar

        Zackly

  • BeautifullyHuman

    There’s nothing that brings me more cognitive dissonance than the N word. I personally feel I shouldn’t use it, the history of the word is reprehensible, and i know this, but at the same time, the N word just works. Earlier this year, I tried to remove the word from my vocabulary in the gratuitous sense, but needless to say, I’m having trouble. lol. Sometimes n*ggas just n*g and the word just pops in my head and out my mouth.

    I’m trying though. It’s a battle but I’m trying to be more conscious of my usage. Despite it being all-encompassing (I can use this word in so many contexts), I’m having a hard time reconciling it’s history especially when i personally feel I should know better. I acknowledge I’m a work in progress and a backslider.

    • Trill Mickelson

      “Sometimes n*ggas just n*g”

      Yo, there is literally no better way to put this. This is going to be my answer to n-word discussions from now until forever.

      • Yeah that quote was an astute, poignant observation, and it made me chuckle.

    • Rachmo

      N*ggas gon n*g is one of the best phrases in life.

  • LJK

    The N-word is a hard toss up for me. As an .5 generation African in America, I have tried really hard to learn about Black culture and not project my homogeneous/almost slave-free privilege when it comes to identifying with the African-American community. I cringe anytime I hear newly-arrived Black immigrants (African, Caribbean, Afro-Latino) use the word without any knowledge of the history, but on the other-hand, I’m guilty for using it too.

    Sometimes it fits to use it..especially in moments of anger, lol. But it does bother me when I hear young Black kids refer to each other as my N*g/N**ga every two seconds. Mostly because it has given non-Black folks who grow up in urban environments the agency to feel comfortable with saying it.

    • BeautifullyHuman

      I work for a CMO and while visiting one of the schools, I heard a little Mexican girl say n*gga among her little friends. Needless to say, I cringed and wanted to yank her little a** up by her collar. It’s evident I’m getting old, but I was extremely disturbed by hearing her say the N word. I hate whenever I am visiting one of the campuses and all I hear is n*gga being hurled around by these small a** kids.

      • Meridian

        I think it’s interesting when Latinos, Asians, European people, etc. use it liberally and then have their kids growing up thinking it’s just another bad word. Na. It definitely starts with our peers. I always get on people’s cases when they get too comfortable with it. I start asking for race relation papers and sh*t to see if black people as a whole gave them that access. It definitely helps the trickle down effect where kids use it blindly when you nut check their parents for being so comfortable with it.

  • Brooklyn_Bruin

    Can’t ride with you on this one playboy.

    “when only ninja can accurately convey the feeling”

    Means you need to think harder about what you want to say, and not just go with the tried and true cause you’re being lazy.

    • troubleman

      I completely agree BB. To me, using the word demonstrates ignorance, intellectual laziness and a lack of class. Double that if you use it in mixed company.

  • Meridian

    Black people made it a term of endearment because they couldn’t control whether or not someone used it or called them it. It’s something we say to one another and have as part of our lexicon because we all understand that we got through this sh*t together as a people. While we all share in the experience of growing up as a people in this nation and how we give each other nods to that journey is never going to go away, and shouldn’t, we can control what happens to us now. You can in fact stop someone from saying it to you or around you and that’s an important part of our history as well: to be rid of it completely and just have the shared experiences between us. That’s not to say I don’t use it loosely as I would any other curse word or vulgarity, but it is saying we have the power to keep ourselves from being assaulted by the terminology. That should be embraced as well.

  • NomadaNare

    Nigga is part of my vocabulary as well and precisely for the same reason. It can so succinctly convey an entire range of emotions with very little change in tone/intonation/cadence etc. and its use conveys a very deep sense of understanding and connection. When I was younger my sister and I could look at each other and know precisely what the other was thinking. We can still do that because we grew up together and blood is blood, but for those that aren’t blood, use of that word in that sense is about as close as we can get to that.

  • Tentpole

    This ongoing debate over nyggar truly speaks to our character as a race of people. It shows how much we are in touch with our history. The current generation born in 1980 and later are the first generation of blacks not to have to be NYGGARS. They miss what being a nyggar meant. They weren’t around when a light skinned Black meant that their mother was raped or made a sex slave like she was in a My Baby Got Back movie and this was without her consent. So much for just say no. Also missed out on the fact that your father could be shot, burned, or hanged and his killers would never be brought to justice even though some of this was done in the middle of town. The interesting fact is that this debate was at its peak in the 80’s when rappers and comedians found that they could make money by using the word in their product. Since many of us worship them, then how could this be a bad thing. Since it’s only a word. It’s a hate word. I don’t want it banished. I want to stay a hate word so you want misunderstand what I mean when I use it even if you don’t respect the dead that died with no chance of justice

  • Jay

    You just explained exactly how I feel about the N word more eloquently than I ever could.

    • Exactly. I feel like I need to print this out and just hand it to anyone who asks me why I still use it AND when i use it.

  • Chris Dorner

    I thought I was gonna disagree with you Damon, but you make some good points. It should only be for private use. You really do give others a license to use it, when you sell it to a mix audience.

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