Pop Culture, Race & Politics, Theory & Essay

Why I’ll Never Stop Saying “Nigga”

n-word

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”)

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Damon Young

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB. He is also a contributing editor for EBONY.com. He resides in Pittsburgh, and he really likes pancakes.

  • Tx10inch

    I prefer Negro myself, but…eh.

    • nillalatte

      You know the last time I tried to word play with that word I was stalked. You lucky Tx and I would still respect you in the morning. :P lol

      • Tx10inch

        lol. I hear ya Miracle Whip. :-)

  • E Reed

    Oddly enough, I never used the term until I joined a Black Baptist church while in undergrad. Before then, I was deathly afraid of even whispering the word under my breathe. Now, I smooth use it in everyday conversation. Same thing with profanity and the Black church, I didn’t curse like a sailor until AFTER I joined church, but that’s a conversation for another day, niggas! O_o

    • http://commentarybyvalentina.wordpress.com/ Val

      Actually I’m going to need you to ‘splain why being associated with a Black Baptist church has you cussing and using the N word. Because I just don’t get it.

      • E Reed

        Love my church family… They’re loving people and all, but they curse like sailors and say n*gga this, n*gga that every other sentence when we kick it outside of church venues.

        Became cool with a few folks and picked up the habits myself. Lol… Ironic, I know

        • http://commentarybyvalentina.wordpress.com/ Val

          Okay, well, I was just wondering.

  • nillalatte

    “Same goes for” Um… did you just stop in mid sentence? Did yo’ girl catch yo’ attention? Did you hit the ‘publish’ button instead of the return? Inquiring minds want to know.

    As for ‘that’ word, phew, lawd, I’m sick of ‘that’ word. I’m sick of people saying it. I’m sick of others getting they drawz in a wad when they too say it themselves. Some words should just be stricken from the dictionary starting with that one. It’s amazing how many words we, as a nation, can use to freely and willfully hurt others, and I think that’s why it hangs around. Like people want to use it just to hurt others. And, when it does, then shtaki hits the fan and things blow up.

    I was talking to a co-worker last week. She’s black from Memphis. Two TN girls out in the f’n desert… anyways, I asked her why she brought her family out here in the middle of no f’n where to live. She said, “I apologize for what I’m about to say, but I didn’t want my kids around them nigg*s in Memphis. They can’t play or be kids without some nigg* trying to kill ‘em.” She waited for my reaction, but sad thing is, I knew exactly what she was talking about and can understand where she was coming from.

    I guess that’s no different than me wanting to raise my kids away from white folks I consider blatant racists, backwoods, hillbillies. I think lots of folks can relate, we just use different adjectives to describe behavior that we consider uncouth and uncivilized. I suppose.

    • The Champ

      “Same goes for” Um… did you just stop in mid sentence? Did yo’ girl catch yo’ attention? Did you hit the ‘publish’ button instead of the return? Inquiring minds want to know.”

      All of the above. The post is completed now.

      • nillalatte

        ha! I thought you had PJ’s… ‘squirrel’… attention span this evening.

    • http://commentarybyvalentina.wordpress.com/ Val

      I think you are talking about the reason I have a problem with Black people using the word. I mean if it’s used the way your friend used it, then that means being a Ni**a is a bad thing, right? Which means that being a “Ni**a” is a bad thing. So, essentially your friend and other Black people who use it in that context are being racist. But, then they will equivocate and say that they aren’t because they’re Black, that they are just describing a certain kind of Black person. Sort of like the Chris Rock joke that people allude to.

      But, I’ve always hated that Chris Rock said that. Because he was basically confirming that the word is valid because there are actually Black people who are “Ni**as.

      • nillalatte

        Val, I think no matter what words we use to describe ‘undesirable’ people we all understand the underlying context of the message. Not every white person is my friend just because I’m white. Not every black person, I bet I could safely assume, is not your friend because they’re black. Sometimes I just don’t understand nor can I empathize with ‘undesirable’ people. We’re on totally different levels in many different ways, not just skin color, and I think we all use discriminatory/visual clues that leads us to know how such persons act, dress, and speak, and we avoid and/or limit contact with those we view as ‘undesirable.’ Is it wrong? Maybe not. You just might be saving your own life to do so. It’s primarily a survival instinct.

        • http://commentarybyvalentina.wordpress.com/ Val

          “I bet I could safely assume, is not your friend because they’re black.”

          Yep, to quote a very famous writer, “All my skinfolk ain’t my kinfolk”. I get that and I totally agree. I just think using that word to describe a particular type of Black person gives credence to its original usage by White racists back in the day.

          • nillalatte

            White racists don’t discriminate in that manner. They are actually pretty consistent with the n-word as a blanket description of every black person. We know this simply by our President and comments I see on different spaces on the web. They still referring to the President of the United States as ‘n*gga.’ I’m like WTF? Now, I would in no way shape or form consider him ‘undesirable.’ In fact, though he has his faults too, he’s a pretty good role model for an accomplished black person. White racists can’t see past the skin color to recognize his accomplishments as a human being, an American citizen, even our President. They are pretty sad, ugly, and negative people I believe, and I distance myself from people like that. They are in reality, in my opinion, no different than other extremist groups around the world that hate just to be hatin’. Pathetic waste of energy.

          • Kema

            I thinkI take issuewith uncouth blackpeople being looked down on harsher than those of otherraces.

            • http://www.TheNewEve.com/ Bunni

              i think every race has a group of undesirables, blacks arent the only ones with skinfolk that make you shake your head….white, spanish, italian, chinese…..we all have em, and they all have been described using derogatory names….idk if thats right, but its there…

              • Todd

                Word! Going to high school with White people in NYC has given me quite the education in what other groups call each other. I didn’t know 90% of the bad names you could call a White person until I heard them from their own lips. I’m not endorsing it, but let’s not pretend that every other group is some big happy family.

                • http://www.TheNewEve.com/ Bunni

                  yeah….im not saying its ok…but it is reality, and black folks dont own this struggle.

                • http://www.TheNewEve.com/ Bunni

                  its been gathered that all races have some touchy word for their group…the only thing I have an issue with is the n-word becoming the status quo in other groups..my roommate’s friends are chinese/japanese, and they drop more n-bombs than all of my black friends combined lol…its like ummm cool your jets bro

          • http://recklessactsofpunctuation.tumblr.com/ dtafakari

            Dead on. I absolutely hate the black usage of the word to denote “an ignorant person.” That’s as much reclamation as “n!gga” the endearment. I choose neither.

      • http://www.TheNewEve.com/ Bunni

        i use the word similar to that, but i dont think its a race thing, so much as its a behavior thing for me. To me, its a cuss word, and all cuss words are inherently “bad,” but like Damon said, sometimes theres no other fitting word, and its understood by your audience….Nilla doesnt use that word, but she understood what her coworker was saying….which means theres a universality to the CONTEXT of the word now…i have family members that freely use the word “sp*c” and while I have never used the word, I understand the context they use it in.

    • Dignan 2

      Nilla,

      May I simply respond, “Cracka, please!”

      Ok, not really. I was just looking for an angle to be a wiseass.

      • nillalatte

        Cracka yo’ arsse. Welcome back. :D

  • nillalatte

    Look for my comment coming soon in a post near you. I have a feeling Disqus and WordMess are not playing well together. I refuse to try to retype the post that was just poofed. Play on.

    • E Reed

      Yeah, this format sucks. Lol.

      • nillalatte

        It has a lot of good features, but they, like some on this board, don’t play nice sometimes.

    • http://commentarybyvalentina.wordpress.com/ Val

      My comment just went into moderation too, Nilla. Ironically I think it’s because instead of using “N-Word”, I used the actual word. I guess WordPress and/ or Disqus is very sensitive to that word.

  • The Champ

    Hey, everyone. Accidentally hit publish instead of save. The post posted before it was done. If you read before 12:45am, please read again and sh*t.

    • http://commentarybyvalentina.wordpress.com/ Val

      Okay. And would you free my comment, Champ. Thanks.

  • I Am Your People

    The reason I like “n*gga” because white people say, “why can’t I say it?” This is the ONLY thing black people have over white people. Or not. I’m looking at you, Paula Deen.

    • E Reed

      I personally don’t care if white people say n*gga in my presence. I’m quick to retort with cracker, Casper, trailer rat, trash, garbage, jethro, and/or Ellie Mae.

      The Caucasians don’t take kindly to these words, especially the southern ones I’ve encountered in my day….

      • http://recklessactsofpunctuation.tumblr.com/ dtafakari

        I think black men may have a different experience than black women. No white person has ever called me that to my face. Has it happened to you?

        • Kema

          Hearing a white person say it and having one call you that are two different things. lol! I’ve heard it 3 different times
          A guy repeating a Chris Rock joke.
          A girl singing the words to a Woka Flocka song
          and my favorite… A chick talking about “I wish someone would try to talk to my n*gga”

          • Todd

            The first 2 are OK if we are talking direct quotes. That I wouldn’t have a problem with, because otherwise the context is lost. That last one though…yeah. That’s that BS. LOL

            • Kema

              Well that was her ‘n*gga’. lol!

          • http://www.TheNewEve.com/ Bunni

            i’ve experienced blatant racism, but was never called a n*gga…i’ve had a white man straight turn up his nose at me, push past me, and close a door in my face–that hurt more than any word ever could. So in that regard, I think sticks and stones is my mantra, cuz if a white person actually called me that, I’d be too amazed by their unmitigated gall to be truly offended..my honest, hypocritical reaction would prob be “DID THIS N*GGA REALLY JUST CALL ME A N*GGER!??!”

            • Kema

              See thats why I dont get too mad about the usage. Its more the racist feeling behind it that bothers me.

        • Vanity in Peril

          I’ve had it yelled AT me from a car full of white guys. Once when I refused to let them “holla” at me. And usually it seems like someone in the car said “I dare you to scream that at the lovely black girl reading a book in the park”… but no one has had the audacity to stop drop (open up shop) right to my face and wait for the consequences. Of which there would be many.

        • Maharaja Misty

          Yep. A Mexican lady called me one when I was in High School and worked at Macy’s. We got into it because her card got declined and she got in her feelings and then ‘demanded’ I re-fold her sweaters ‘correctly’. I dropped that sweater on the counter and said ‘oh bish, I think we both know which of us probably has more experience in folding clothes correctly, I don’t have your expertise’.
          Then shyt got real. …
          Now that I think about it, I had a horrible temper as a teenager…

      • SweetSass

        Except that ‘white trash’ isn’t and hasn’t ever really been a term meant to encompass all white people. Same with cracker and red neck, etc. Those are all class terms for poor whites. What about upper class whites? There has never been a racialized term that really offends them and targets them. They are incapable of offense on this… Well, until you call them racist. Which really offends them, ironically.

        • Todd

          “What about upper class whites? There has never been a racialized term
          that really offends them and targets them. They are incapable of offense
          on this… Well, until you call them racist. Which really offends them,
          ironically.”

          Not ironically, if you unpack it. Among well-off Whites, racism is code for “being a broke a$$”. If you have 3 houses and F*ck You money, as the Wall Street types call it, would you be OK with being called poor?

        • http://commentarybyvalentina.wordpress.com/ Val

          That’s true. And, interestingly it’s rich Whites who control the systems of real racism.

        • Madlark

          It’s not even poor white people. It’s poor white people who people think are like Black people. That’s why people have these terms for southern white people and not for those in the North, West, or Midwest.

    • JahRW

      LOL @ thinking that word is what we have over white people. If that’s the case, then we’re in a sad state my peoples.

  • TheOtherJerome

    I love that we can’t say the word upon which this topic is based without hitting moderation lol

  • I Am Your People

    I was really fighting the air when people compared Alec Baldwin calling some newspaper reporter a queer to Paula Deen harassing and discriminating against employees. Intelligent conversation just ain’t finna happen

    • http://commentarybyvalentina.wordpress.com/ Val

      Yeah, I know. I saw some show yesterday where they were comparing the two. There’s a huge difference but the media likes to ignore pesky details.

  • Cali333

    2 things…

    1: I only buy & use Dijon mustard, it’s delicious! Grey Poupon Creamy Dijon would change your stance on mustard…

    2: I can count on one hand how many times I use it in a year. & it’s ALWAYS after I’ve talked on the phone/hung out w/ a certain friend of mine who uses it as if everyone she knows is named it. I’ve come to the point in the last 5 years or so where I just don’t like hearing it for any reason. Its unnecessary 99% of the time. I resent it in CURRENT songs b/c I really do feel like it needs to be phased out. I say “current” songs b/c I’m not gonna take old songs/artists to task at a time when rap was exploding, folks were getting the hang of expressing themselves freely & I was using it myself…

    Take 2 fairly current songs (that I actually like, I know examples are endless): “Suit & Tie” – did Jay Z HAVE TO use it in his little rap? On a White guy’s song, no less? No, he didn’t. Totally unnecessary lyric… & “Tonight” by John Legend. It’s on the soundtrack to a very popular, crossover movie & here’s Luda saying it for no reason at all.

    Maybe it’s age, maybe I worry too much about the audience & the others, but I’m tired of it & would be totally happy to never hear it again. It’s just EVERYWHERE – movies, tv, music, conversation… I want everyone to get past it. I know this is a pipe dream (like the Warriors thinking they can lure Dwight Howard), but I want it anyway :(

    • The Champ

      “Take 2 fairly current songs (that I actually like, I know examples are endless): “Suit & Tie” – did Jay Z HAVE TO use it in his little rap? On a White guy’s song, no less? No, he didn’t. Totally unnecessary lyric… & “Tonight” by John Legend. It’s on the soundtrack to a very popular, crossover movie & here’s Luda saying it for no reason at all.”

      i do still feel a certain way when it’s used around “others.” Even with music

  • http://awordorthree.com/ A Word or Three

    Probably the most offensive part of this post is that you ok’ed a kid to say it. It’s one thing to make the adult decision to use a pejorative/racial epithet. Just like it’s one thing to make an adult decision to smoke a cigarette, drink a brew, or vote for Mitt Romney. But it’s completely another to basically tell a kid that a word that could land him in a lot of trouble is ok.
    Once people start using the N word, (kinda how The Wire characters would reference being “in the game”), there’s a whole new playing field. For example, I don’t say the n word, so when Paula Deen suggested that she was distressed by “young people” using the word, I am an example of a “young person” (obviously she meant black people) who has opted out… and if I can opt out, she certainly needs to. However, you, this child you gave a N word pass to, and all the other folks who freely drop the N bomb, need to have a different kind of conversation or defense when faced with White people who wonder it’s ok for them to use it.

    If you want to rubber stamp black kids’ right to the N word, at the very least, give them a heads up about what that means beyond “it’s cool out here… just not in my classroom.”

    • Terry Odis

      You know, he did green light that kid, but what else should he have done? And on the court, that’s HARDLY the worst word being said. It would be hypocritical to chastise the kid. You can’t let it slide. The best thing to do IMO is make it a teachable moment in the realest way possible. It may sound bad, but look around at this world. With there being so much gray area around the word “n!gga”, it would be a HUGE disservice to not rely on context as it changes the entire definition and intent of our words. As a black man, it is imperative that we understand the meaning and context of language altogether, whether it be at work or at the court or wherever.

      • Rawtid

        still would have been hypocritical though. if he doesn’t have a problem with the word or saying it, how could he in effect tell the young man that it isn’t okay to say. I have to say i agree with his approach. He can’t really stop him from saying it, and he shouldn’t be hypocritical. But if he is going to use it, know there is a time and a place.