Who Gets to Say “Nigga”

The perennial question. Black folk in this country guard the use of the word so vehemently, you would have thought it was bequeathed to them by some long lost ancestor. In many ways, it was. Scholars [wikipedia] tell us that the origin of the word is Portugese. Negar was the term used to describe African Slaves being shipped to the New World by Portugese slave traders. It ultimately derives from the Latin stem nigrum meaning black. Whether the modern conception of the word has changed, its historic pejorative sense: one that evokes all the hatred and demeaning treatment thrown upon the backs of a culture and a people who built this country from the ground up, remains enshrined in the collective consciousness of a Nation that still struggles with race despite having elevated a person of African descent to the highest office in the land.

Cornel West had this to say about the word:

There’s a certain rhythmic seduction to the word. If you speak in a sentence, and you have to say catcompanion, or friend, as opposed to nigger, then the rhythmic presentation is off. That rhythmic language is a form of historical memory for black people… When Richard Pryor came back from Africa, and decided to stop using the word onstage, he would sometimes start to slip up, because he was so used to speaking that way. It was the right word at the moment to keep the rhythm together in his sentence making.

I, for one, have never bought the “N-I-G-G-A” is utterly different from “N-I-G-G-E-R” argument one bit. Semantically and practically, they are the same word. Nigga is just a shortened form of Nigger. Denotatively, they are identical. Connotatively however, they may be vastly different in meaning. The words we speak are imbued with the feeling we have behind them. When I dap my best friend up when I haven’t seen him in a while and ask with passion “how you been my nigga?” it simply cannot and does not have the same meaning as when ol’ massa said Nigger in the midst of beating the life out of a black person. But that doesn’t answer the question of the title of this post: Who gets to say “Nigga?”

Maybe Mr. Rock can enlighten us:

You know, I don’t think that was quite helpful. You see, it becomes problematic when you set conditions on who can and cannot use the word. Some Black folk would argue that they can’t give you a comprehensive list of who can say it, but they sure as hell can tell you who can’t and that’s the white man.

What about Mr. President Obama? By this logic, he get’s to say it half as much as I do, as he is half white.

"Somebody sit that Nigga DOWN, the President is speaking"

Perhaps we should adopt another rule: you only get to say “nigga” if you are descended of the race on whom the terrible epithet was most used: slaves and their descendants. By this logic, President Obama doesn’t get to say it at all, as his father was Kenyan and not a descendant of an American Slave.

Can DJ Khaled say it and get away with it? He seems to think so. He’s Palestinian and his real name is Khaled bin Adul Khaled (I swear I am not making this up.)

"As-Salāmu `Alaykum . . . my nigga"

Let’s try another possible rule. You get to say “nigga” if, and only if, you’re a rapper that grew up around blacks . . . and then only in a song . . . and then only if the context is not degrading or filled with hatred.

Drake: NO His father is black and from Memphis, but his mother is Jewish Canadian and he actually had a bar mitzvah, and grew up in Toronto’s wealthy Forest Hill Neighborhood.

*Drake Damn*

Eminem: YES. Despite being of Scottish, English, German, Swiss, and of all things, Luxembourgian ancestry he spent his teenage years in Detroit being raised by a single mother. You’ve seen “8 Mile.”

Seriously though, Luxembourgian? Who else do you know who can claim to be Luxembourgian?

I dare you all to find Luxembourg on a map in less than 30 seconds.

I digress.

The point I’m trying to make is that when you set arbitrary rules about who can say a word, when you make superficial distinctions between one that ends in -er and one that ends in -a, you set yourself up for the fall.

I go by this rule. I choose to say “Nigga” and “Nigger” in company that is Black. I do not use it in professional settings or at school and if any of my Black friends find my use of the word uncomfortable, I try my best not to say it around them. The key, I think, is to be aware of your surroundings and culturally sensitive to those who may, or may not, have grown up using it regularly. You’d be surprised.

Continue to question the world around you.

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Comments
One Response to “Who Gets to Say “Nigga””
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