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The N-Word: It’s Complicated

Oprah wouldn’t be able to ride the train in New York City without her ears ringing from “nigga” being tossed around in public conversations like a ball during ping pong.

Lee Daniels’s The Butler (August 16,2013) has sent Oprah into a press frenzy. Rocking beautiful curly tresses she’s sat down with a myriad of press to promote her role in the film alongside Forest Whitaker, Lenny Kravitz, Terence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., Jane Fonda and Robin Williams. The Butler retells the story of a black butler who served eight U.S. presidents over 30 years during the Civil Rights era.

Oprah’s stance on the N-word isn’t a secret. One of the reasons she’s turned off from most hip-hop is its use of the word as a term of endearment. She agreed to disagree with Jay-Z over it in 2009 when he took her to the Marcy projects that raised him. In a recent interview with Parade magazine Oprah, Forest Whitaker and Lee Daniels shared their thoughts on race, particularly the word in question, but it was Oprah’s response that stood out.

You cannot be my friend and use that word around me. It shows my age, but I feel strongly about it. … I always think of the millions of people who heard that as their last word as they were hanging from a tree.

If you think about the second half of her comment long enough you’ll cringe.

Born in Baltimore, lived in Philly, Grand Rapids and Saginaw, MI before settling in Nashville when I was 12, I consider myself a southerner. The N-word wasn’t used in my pro-black home, my aunt’s, my paternal or maternal grandparents or my Dad’s home (well, maybe occasionally). It was only incorporated in my daily life through music, film and my environment outside of the home.

When I moved to New York three years ago I rolled my eyes  every time I rode the train and heard Latinos comfortably saying “nigga” as if it was their own to reappropriate. No one else blinked an eye. I, however, was annoyed. The history attached to “nigger” is not something I suspect they’ll ever truly know. How the word was used to dehumanize blacks for hundreds of years is something they can empathize with, but never fully understand. So it bothers me that black New Yorkers have given Latinos—poor and brown—a pass. Although I’m sure they exist, I don’t know Latinos (mostly Mexican) where I’m from who say it in everyday conversation. There are just certain boundaries in the south that are understood. Ask white rapper Yelawolf from Alabama— he knows what’s up.

I’m equally irritated when I get on the train and hear black youth calling each other “nigga,” but the annoyance comes from a different place. I don’t want black kids thinking they are nothing but “niggas” because how you think of yourself is how you will navigate through life. I also wonder how many misinformed white people listening to blacks call each other “nigga” will use it as justification for either using the word themselves or downplay the offense and hurt people have when a white public figure calls someone a “nigger.” I won’t ever get used to an entire generation’s comfortability with a word they seemingly know so little about.

Black America has had the debate over the N-word as long as I’ve been alive. Remember the well-intended but useless funeral for the N-word held by the NAACP in 2007? Six years later this debate has been pushed to the front of America’s racial discussion palette again when Paula Deen’s court deposition admitting she’d used the word “nigger” were made public. As a result she’s lost nearly $12.5 million from the cancellation of her show and endorsements. Although George Zimmerman was on trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin, Trayvon’s linguistic choices as well as his character were on trial that led to Zimmerman’s acquittal. Rachel Jeantel admitted “cracker” and “nigga” were words teens from their area used in everyday speech. Don Lemon’s five point plan for blacks to aide in ending racism included the condemnation of using the N-word along with not littering and not sagging. Yes, because if black folks just stop littering and sagging racism would magically end. And Philadelphia Eagles’ Riley Cooper was caught on video saying, “I’ll fight every nigger in here” at a Kenny Chesney concert. He apologized on Twitter, was fined by the NFL, returned to training camp and life went on. Pundits blamed hip-hop for Cooper’s racism even though he was at a country music concert when he said the word with a strong “er” on the end. He’s racist. Period. The end.

Much of the debate around one of the most controversial words in the English language always swiftly turns to white America’s entitlement rearing its white privilege. “Why can’t we say it but blacks can?” The real question should be, why do you want to? There’s always the remedial argument that if blacks want whites to stop using the word we must hold ourselves accountable by not saying it. I hate that argument as much as I hate the argument that the word only has as much power as you give it. The word is offensive, it’s black people’s and black people’s alone to reclaim and the word should NEVER be said by non-blacks. Not when rapping (skip the “nigga” lyrics), not when around your black friends to try to sound down (even if they give you a pass), just never. There is only exception and that’s in journalism where reciting a direct quote is necessary.

Although I don’t agree with policing people’s speech, deep down I know some things do start with us.

I don’t particularly find it empowering to call the black men I respect or love “nigga” in the same way I don’t feel loved when my girlfriends call me “bitch” endearingly. There really is no need for me to ever use the word “nigga” so why is it so hard to let go?

When you know better, you do better. History is not something lost on me. As Oprah noted, the imagery of ancestors hanging from a tree hearing themselves called “nigger” before dying is enough to give me goosebumps. Yet here I am saying “nigga, nigga, nigga” like I’m trapped in a Trinidad James song. Like blood on the leaves, “nigger/nigga” is too painful to continue to ignore. Black men and women are quickly dying at the hands of their peers and by racists who only see criminalized bodies. They are not the “niggas” they call themselves, or the “niggers” they’ve been perceived.

An age old adage goes something like: It’s not what you’re called, it’s what you answer to. As it relates to “niggers/nigga,” it’s both. I don’t want to be called or answer to either.

  • Sarah White

    That quote by Oprah is everything. I agree that non-blacks should not be using the word at all! It’s a word I didn’t grow up hearing in my house and therefore I don’t use it.

  • RKS

    We must take responsibility though. We can’t go around using the word in our music, movies, and public conversation, and then huff and puff when a non-black person uses it. Hypocrisy this is and we need to quit it.

  • AmericanBoi

    i think it a perfect world nobody should use it. But with it being so common in hip hop and daily language its almost like its lost its negative connotation. And it shouldnt have. But i dont even get mad at it anymore. I do believe words only have as much power as you give them. And i also believe its the intent behind how they are used. I would definitely prefer if my white friends dont use it, but i’m not going to flip out if i hear them saying it while rapping to a Kanye West song. Its almost like the word bitch. Girls, gays, and even some straight men use it so casually when addressing each other now people dont even take offense to it. Like Oprah said I guess it shows our age huh?