Is nigg(er/a) really a term of endearment, or do we just not know what else to say?

July 24, 2017

man-person-black-and-white-people-photography-boy-1053497-pxhere.com“And do not insult one another and do not call each other by [offensive] nicknames.” [49:11]

Let me first say that the argument about whether white people should get to use the n-word is both tired and played out —the answer has always been no. It is a word used within a particular community and that has nothing to do with white people and needs no further explanation.

Yet unfortunately, black people do feel a need to repeatedly explain to white people faking ignorance why they shouldn’t use the word, that’s where things get tricky. The explanation goes that when we use the word it is a “term of endearment” and when white people use it, it is an insult because of the historical connections to the myriad of indecencies white people have perpetuated against black people. While I agree with the second part of that explanation, the first?  Not so much.

Nigg(er/a) is at best a neutral term when black people use it amongst each other. “Look at that nigga over there” connotes no intention of endearment, it’s simply a stand in for man/guy/brother/human being,  there is no deeper meaning except the fact that one could guess you’re talking about another black person. And yes it can even be derogatory when used between black people -not in the same way as if a white person used it but derogatory nonetheless, “You ain’t never gonna be nothing but a nigga”, is not a positive statement by any stretch of the imagination. And yes the word can be positive, “These are my main niggas, love ’em death”, ah, yes now we feel the love. But the question must be posed -positive,  negative or neutral, why exactly do we call ourselves niggas in the first place?

My parents never let me use the word, being Caribbean —and therefore a bit of an outsider from African American culture –my dad, in particular, saw nothing but hypocrisy in AAs claiming no one but us could use the word. So I never heard it said casually in my house and never used it with friends. Richard Pryor, a black comedian who —like most black comedians, used that word as often as possible, stopped using it once he came back to the U.S. from Africa, stating “I didn’t see any niggers there“. What did he mean? If nigger was a term of endearment or at worst neutral, why did he feel uncomfortable using it for Africans subsequently making him feel uncomfortable to use it at all?

Our use of the n-word only masks our pain, we tried to take the word back to no avail -we tried to take the pain back, to no avail. Sure white people will plead with us ‘hat in hand’ if they get caught using the n word, and we feel a bit of power by making them cower to us. But the reality is, it’s not stand in for the lack of apology for slavery,  Jim Crow, and the continued destruction of our bodies. It’s a facade. It’s a mirage. It’s not the thing we’re really after.

Maybe calling ourselves niggas connects us with the pain of our ancestors, a pain that was never rectified in any way what so ever. Or maybe it’s a signal that we’ve forgotten, forgotten the pain they went through making light of the word they might have heard last before being hung from a tree. It’s hard to know —how can you dig into the unconscious of a people? But it is clear that we have an unhealthy attachment to that word –and how can we not, how many centuries can a people be called something and not begin to think that’s exactly what they are?

And it’s pointless for anyone to get on their high horse and simply state that we ought to stop using the word, I agree with Ice Cube who said, “that’s our word”, it is -but why is it our word? Why do we hold on to it so tight?  Why do we refuse to let it go?

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