"In contemporary usage and in the work of pop entertainers such as rappers, "nigger" (or "nigga") is spoken as a form of "liberation" from convention. To those who use it freely and even fiercely, it means that a black world exists with its own rules in which the word is well understood in its various meanings. In the real world, nigger is a traditional insult; it applies to a position down below, which black swagger, comedy routines, and rapping have no power to change. If racists believed any of that theory about liberation through repetition, they would already have found another word to express their contempt, their paranoia, their hatred."
--Excerpt from The Artificial White Man: Essays on Authenticity by Stanley Crouch.
This book is not as engaging as the previous quote may lead you to conclude. However, that excerpt is the best part, and therefore worth exploring. This is not just about the word nigger. It's about all words used to demean and demoralize our experience and place in America and conversely uplift or simply identify. Nigger, nigga, nigra, coon, darkie, monkey, African booty scratcher, jungle bunny, Uncle Tom, sellout, Black, African-American, Afro-American, Black-American, Negro, Colored.
We fight for and against these labels throughout our lives. It makes me wonder where we will be in terms of our identities when our children grow up. How will we explain to them the evolution? Because I think the current generation and the coming ones have somehow and may continue to miss that lesson. Many of us have some vague sort of understanding of the progression from the slave nigra to the African-American. But apparently not enough to escape from calling each other niggers. Oh excuse me, that's nigga, right? I never got that. What's the difference? Either way you'll be mad if some white person calls you that. I'm not going to act like nigga is not a part of my vocabulary, but it is increasingly annoying to me. Like, do you have no other way to address me? My friends love that word.
The more I work around white people for the majority of my life again, the more sensitive I become to the word. Its like if one of these people were to get so comfortable around me that the word slipped, there would be a huge problem. And while I have some sense of the fact that they know there is a line that should not be crossed, I also feel them getting more and more comfortable. There have been several questionable things that have slipped out that were right on that line of making me want to harm someone.
One of my corporate America friends had this conundrum in the last couple of weeks. Someone at work asked her if there was anything she preferred to be called. Of course the first thing she smartly said was her name. Then they asked if it mattered if she were called Black or African-American. She said it never really mattered to her, and there was only one word that was unacceptable. Then one girl asked, "Well what about colored? Is that okay?" I have no idea how I would have reacted if put in that same situation. But my first thought was not well intentioned. Let's just put it that way. Obviously I wouldn't have been murderous, but like I said, I don't know how I would have reacted.
Another friend was at a party with majority white co-workers present. They were sitting at table playing cards. The friend we'll call Y was the only Black person at the table. One of his co-workers was listening to Biggie's "Juicy" on his ipod and felt comfortable enough to say the word nigga singing along with the song. Y didn't say anything but everyone close enough to hear it was instantly uncomfortable. Y didn't want to make a scene and turn the few Black people against the ignorant white boy who thought that was acceptable, ruining the mood of the party. On the one hand, you don't want to be that problematic Black person and ruin the relationship with your co-workers. But on the other hand, you don't want to give the impression that that kind of language is acceptable. I think in that situation I would have been a lot more willing to make a scene.
Another friend has a problem with being called African-American because she's not African and "has no ties to Africa." She also cites the fact that people who immigrate from Africa and gain citizenship are considered African-American. I never understood either of those lines of reasoning when I heard them before, and they were not any clearer when reiterated recently. I am Black, I am Negro, I'm probably even colored. But I am not a nigger. I am African-American if for no other reason than it reminds someone that my ancestors were brought to this nation in chains in the bowels of ships, stripped from their families for centuries while they built this nation to what it is today. So what is in a name?
Nigger has been used as a means to keep Black people in their place. Yes, many believe that we are stealing the power from the word. But if the power was truly gone, perhaps we would not be so offended by its usage among other races.