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Words: The "N" Word

Updated: Nov 5, 2019

Don't say that word!

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”

I remember saying and hearing this little adage when I was in grade school. Even then, however, I knew it was one of those lies we tell ourselves to help us get through a difficult situation. I knew this because the only time such a saying was used was when in fact someone’s words had hurt another’s feelings.

A word can hurt because of the meaning the speaker gives the word. Or, a word can hurt because of the meaning the listener gives the word. Further, the speaker’s intent when using certain words can dictate the meaning the words should have for the listener. Word and phrase meanings change over time and vary between locales. Variations of the same word can have very different meanings.

As the story goes, ‘nigger’ has a very different meaning than its allegedly more positive descendant, ‘nigga.’ Although it is commonly believed to mean, “An ignorant person,” the word ‘nigger’ has never had that meaning.[1] ‘Nigger,’ as far back as 1574, which is its first known use, has always been a racial slur.[2] It has only ever meant to be used as “an insulting and contemptuous term for a Black person.”[3] ‘Nigger’ is considered so offensive that even when merely discussing the word, people only refer to it as, ‘the N-word.’[4] It is generally considered, and I would argue universally accepted, as a word forbidden from use by white people and virtually never used by Black people. I further posit that any time anyone of any race uses the word, he/she intends it to have its historical and universally accepted purpose: to insult and convey contempt.

On the flip side of that coin is ‘nigger’s’ allegedly more positive cousin, ‘nigga.’ There is no hard and fast definition of ‘nigga,’ as it is used to convey a variety of meanings in a variety of situations. Most commonly, ‘nigga’ is used by Black people to refer to other Black people. In defense of the word’s use by Black people, some have argued that ‘nigga’ is simply a way to turn a negative word into a positive one. I have heard celebrities and non-celebrities alike defend the use of ‘nigga’ by attempting to distinguish it from ‘nigger’ as a completely different word with a completely different meaning as if ‘nigga’ is not simply a variation of ‘nigger.’

What weakens the, ‘nigga’ is a way to turn a negative word into a positive one,’ argument is that ‘nigga’ can, has, and is often used as synonymous with ‘nigger.’ ‘Nigga’ is often used by Black people towards other Black people (and other races) to insult and convey contempt. Additionally, many Black people are just as offended when white people (and non-Blacks) use ‘nigga’ as they are when they use ‘nigger.’ Black people have also made the argument that the speaker’s intent behind using ‘nigga’ is different than when using ‘nigger.’

I am not convinced by the ‘nigga’ vs. ‘nigger’ argument. I have not and never will sign on to the ‘nigga’ bandwagon. Despite the fact that pop culture, hip hop, and rap music have helped to make it seem as though ‘nigga’ has a positive meaning (or at least a different meaning than ‘nigger’), I don’t buy it. I don’t believe the people who freely use ‘nigga’ believe it either. If they did believe in its transforming powers, then why would its use be restricted to Black people? If there were truly no negative connotations within the use of ‘nigga’ and it’s a completely different animal than ‘nigger,’ then why was there controversy when Jennifer Lopez used the word in one of her songs? Why is there controversy when Cardi B uses the word in her songs? And so on and so on…

To me, the truth is that Black people subscribed to the use of the word for the same reasons we subscribed to the use of relaxers and other hair straighteners, skin bleaching, nose thinning surgery, and the other countless mechanisms we’ve used over the centuries to minimize and/or erase our Blackness—white oppression and brainwashing has caused us to hate ourselves and all those things that define our Blackness. We have been conditioned to see our Blackness as ugly and dirty and their whiteness as beautiful and clean.

Whatever spin you may want to put on the word to justify using it does not change its historical and present meaning. Using a term to refer to yourself and others that look like you, that is so universally considered offensive to Black people specifically, in whatever variation you choose, is so antithetical to positive and uplifting behavior that I must wonder if we as a people will ever truly be free of the chains our ancestors endured.

[1]“nigger.” Merriam-Webster, 2019. Web. 6 March 2019.




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