I was recently inspired by a discourse that transpired between a small group of almost all African-Americans about the use of the N-words within the Black community and by Whites. Any discussion about the use of these words is certain to cause great controversy, but this does not mean we need to avoid serious conversations about the use of these words. By “N-words,” I mean “nigger” and “nigga.” While there are some deep misunderstandings about the word “nigger,” what there is not any misunderstandings about is the racist use and damage this word has inflicted on Black people. “Nigga,” however, is a word of endearment and communicates kinship, commonality, and amity. When Black people are employing the N-word, they are most often referring to “nigga” and not “nigger”—this is tremendously important to highlight.
Many racist White people continue to use nigger and expect for us (Black people) to stop using nigger or nigga. Are you crazy? We have made tremendously strides to diminish the power the word nigger has on us. One of the ways in which Black people have reduced the power white supremacists have in their use of the word nigger is to begin to take that power away from the word by reconceptualizing it to have a more positive and unifying meaning. The more Black people use the word nigga, the more we will strike mighty blows at the impact of the use of nigger by Whites.
We have made significant racial progress in America. During slavery and official Jim Crow, White people could call Black people niggers and this word would place great limits on what we could be, do, and say. Today, we can take legal action against a White person who elects to employ the word nigger at us. In a sense, we are taking ownership of this word that was once used to demean, limit, and subjugate us and making new meaning for this word with such a vile legacy in America.
Numerous White and Black people have called for an end to the use of the word nigger. I have a problem with calling for a termination of the use of this word because it would retire the use of nigga. Now, White people want us to stop saying this word when they have been calling us this word for years. No! The continued use of this word by African-Americans offers us self-healing. Many “sophisticated” Blacks are now calling for an end to the use of this word because they have become so “educated” about the word and its harmful history. By making an attempt to disallow the use of this word, one will only elevate the power of the word. Unfortunately, it will be the power of the racist meaning of the word that will gain more prominence, considering people will always be reminded of the meaning of the word that caused it to be disallowed.
So you can protest, have marches, and conferences on why this word should no longer be allowed to be used, but you will never be able to stop any word from being used. You only empower the racist meaning of the word in America when you attempt to end the use of it.
Before you get all mad with me and tell me about I don’t understand the history of the word and proceed to give me an “education” about the etymology and history of the word, I have taught a seminar on the word, so please don’t get it twisted! I hope that this article will spark a wider discourse about these words (nigga and nigger).
Antonio Maurice Daniels
University of Wisconsin-Madison