Why Do I Have to Keep Reminding You Not to Use the N-Word?

 

I am sitting at work amidst a hum of employee chatter, my attention trained on my computer screen, when a single word slices through the cacophony—“nigga.” From mumbled Chance the Rapper lyrics, two white guys let it slip: “If one more label try to stop me/It's ‘gon be some dreadhead niggas in ya lobby…”

I stiffen, look around. No one else seems to notice.

My face flushes.

I am the only black person on my team and, consequently, I am the only one who has acknowledged the slur. 

It’s the atomic bomb of racial slurs...If you want to put somebody down, analogize them to the n—–.
— Randall Kennedy

This is not an uncommon occurrence. It is 2018 and I must remind people on a regular basis not to use the N-word. 

To be clear, by "people" I am not strictly addressing whites as the culprits of inappropriately using the n-word. I am referring to Asians, LatinX, Native Americans, and the like.

If you are not African-American, “nigga" is not your word.

 
 

At times I wonder if the use of the n-word by non-black parties stems from ignorance of the term's lengthy past. If that may be the case, let's quickly address the history fo the n-word:

There are may theories on how the word “nigger” came to fruition. First, there was the Latin word “niger,” which led to the English word for black, “negro.” Following that, the term “nigger" derived from the French words "negre" and "negress" and/or the mispronunciation of the phrases by white Southerners.

Enter the 1800s, when the n-word morphed in to what we know it as today—a racial slur.

In an interview with PBS, Randall Kennedy, Harvard University professor and scholar, explains how the n-word was used in the 19th century as a form of degradation:

…take a look at what some black writers were saying in the 1820s, the 1830s.

They make mention of how some white people would tell their children, if you don’t behave, we’re going to put you in the n—– seat. If you don’t behave, we are going to make you sit with the n—–s.

That’s why we know that, by then, the word had become a slur. 

 

Kennedy goes on to address the weight of the n-word in present society:

It’s the atomic bomb of racial slurs. It is the racial slur that has been used in other contexts, so, for instance, Palestinians, the n—–s of the Middle East, the Irish, the n—–s of Europe...This is a term that has been generalized around the world. If you want to put somebody down, analogize them to the n—–.

 

Over the years, African Americans have reclaimed the n-word. We took a slur that systematically oppressed our people and turned the phrase in to something that express our resilience, solidarity, and endearment towards one another.

 
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In “The N Word: Its History and Use in the African American Community” written by Jacquelyn Rahman and published in the Journal of English Linguistics, the author explains:

...a variant of nigger [“nigga”] that developed in the early African American community persists in the lexicon of African American English because it conveys a social meaning that is foundational in the identity of many African Americans. Use of this form allows a speaker to construct an identity representing awareness of the history of African Americans and practical knowledge of the nature and implications of the diaspora experience. The form has been productive in its capacity to convey a range of attitudinal stances related to its basic meaning, including solidarity, censure, and a proactive stance that seeks to bring about positive change.

 

I realize that was a lot of information, so lets summarize: “nigger” is a racial slur stemming from the word “negro.” It was created to reference black/African-American slaves. It is used to dehumanize and label someone as lesser-than.

“Nigga,” on the other hand is a word derived of the pejorative “nigger” and reclaimed by the African-American community for the African-American community. From something horrid we created something empowering.

Great, so we have the history all laid out. Now let’s address the non-black usage of the n-word.

If you are not an African-American, when you roll the the n-word off your tongue it is still racist. You are not empowering black people when you rap “nigga” to a Kanye song, refer to your white pals as “my niggas,” or good-naturedly slip the hard “g” and light “a” towards your one black friend who hasn’t told you to shut the fuck up yet. You are, in fact, contributing to the systematic oppression of blacks in America.

 
 Photo //  Derek Torsani  on  Unsplash

Photo // Derek Torsani on Unsplash

 

Let us African-Americans feel powerful in our reclamation of a slur. Stop complaining about being limited in your rhetoric and the difficulty of being politically correct. Get over your hurt feelings when you are called out on your shit.

Your people were not bought and sold like cattle, raped and molested and “bred” for hundreds of years, had your children ripped from your breast to be sold to another, put in human zoos to entertain whites, prevented from marrying outside your race until the late 60s, made to fight on the front lines, whipped and branded, prevented from eating in restaurants or drinking from water fountains, hunted and lynched.

If you are white, your people are not refused a loan due to your ethnicity, thrown in prisons at rates higher than any other race, shot in the streets for the color of your skin, refused a job due to your name/hairstyle/color, prevented from attending school based on your appearance, treated with less medical compassion and care than lighter skinned people, randomly stopped for looking “suspicious,” and more.

The least you can do is respect our right to one word.

In summary: if you are not a nigga, you may not say nigga. Simple as that.

- GRACE