It’s one of our most valued and treasured yearly traditions.
A famous White person is caught saying nigger or one of its various derivatives. White person is immediately (and rightly) criticized. The criticism starts many sub-conversations, including one about whether it’s ever okay for White people to say that word, and if saying that word automatically means that a White person happens to be racist.
This sub-conversation spawns another sub-conversation—basically, a criticism to the criticism—where Black people’s use of the word is put under the microscope, with popular rap receiving a lion’s share of the blame. “As long as we continue to incorporate it so freely,” says the sub-sub-conversation, “we can’t really be all that surprised when White people think it’s okay to say.”
I even made a contribution to this tradition last year, spending 700 or so words over at The Root attempting to deconstruct the meaning behind our collective angst over the world’s most beautiful woman’s “niggas in Paris” tweet.
Ultimately, the tradition concludes with the same implied resolution. If we want non-Black people to stop saying nigger and nigga, it would help if we stopped saying it ourselves.
It’s an argument that makes sense on both an emotional and intellectual level. It was a word used to degrade and dehumanize, and regardless of how convincingly we’ve “taken it back,” the history remains. The nigga we use is only two generations away from this nigger. Yet, despite the history attached to it and the context surrounding it, I can’t bring myself to remove it from my vocabulary.
Why? Well, 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, f*ck, f*ggot, 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 didn’t have feelings?)
Ironically, I don’t even say nigga that much. Aside from when I’m joking with my girl 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.
This conversation actually reminds of an experience I had during the first couple months of my teaching career. I started in the middle of the school year as a replacement for a 9th grade English teacher who was on extended sick leave. And, since I was the new guy, I had to be hard. (The “Welcome to the Jungle” beginning of Lean on Me was definitely a great teaching tool.) This hardness included me throwing kids out of class for saying nigga. For the first few weeks I was there, any time that word was said aloud in my classroom, I sent the kid to the dean’s office. Sometimes I’d just write “said nigga” on the referral slip.
I (obviously) didn’t have an issue with the word itself. I did it just to ingrain the concept of acceptable classroom behavior in them. Some of them used nigga so much that they didn’t even realize they were saying it.
After a month or so, I started to see some changes. You’d see kids literally catching themselves in mid-sentence, or letting it slip and immediately blurting out “my bad, Mr. Young” right afterwards. Point made, I started to soften.
A few months later, a couple of them were at an AAU basketball practice I was helping my man run. After practice ended, we all played together for about an hour. Although we (and coaches) were grown men, some of these kids were pretty good, so the games were pretty intense. During one of the games, one of the kids didn’t call out a screen, and his teammate—who happened to be one of the kids in my classroom—went over to him and said “Come on, man. You can’t let that nigga hit me like that. Call out the screen!”
After the game, he walked over to me and apologized. Apparently, he knew that I saw him correct his teammate.
“My bad, Mr. Young.”
“Don’t worry about it. It’s cool.”
“I thought you didn’t like that word.”
“I don’t have a problem with it. Just wanted you to know when it was inappropriate.”
—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)