The n-word: Loaded expletive unmasks racial realities

by Hunter Harris / Beacon Staff • November 20, 2014

Like virtually all college students in the history of higher education, I’ve started experimenting. Instead of hard drugs or (harder) poststructuralist theory, this year I’ve been dabbling in something sociolinguistic. I’ve started saying the N-word— It should go without saying that my parents don’t know this.

At first, it was hard. Hard to hear, and even harder to say. There’s never been a combination of two syllables that takes more effort, more loaded concentration to voice. It did—and still does—start in my head, the inkling of a decision to use it, feebly constructed of a youthful willingness, a naive entitlement. The first few times, that breathless uncertainty went deep down in my belly, my tongue felt red-hot in my mouth, boiled in premature guilt. And then it came out. Nigga.

My affinity for hip-hop made it easier: Rapping along to Kanye West or Kendrick Lamar songs let it roll off the tongue smoothly, into other phrases and emotions, where it communicated other ideas. I started peppering it into conversations with my friends, most of them black. It was a one-word punch line, a two syllable expression of racial ingroup identity. 

In a Washington Post multimedia piece, published this month, that features friends of different demographics talking about the word, comedian Owen Smith described the sense of community that the word “nigga” can imbue when used between friends and in context. “I didn’t feel authentic [using it in my comedy]. Growing up, my relatives didn’t use the word around me,” he said. “I didn’t think that it sounded cool. But I do have friends, they got uncles that say it, and it sounds like music when they say it.” 

My own decision was born of a similar circumstance: I’d never heard anyone in my family say it, but I did listen and read as writers I respected used it. There was also the fact that I didn’t (and don’t) think my non-black or Latino friends should say “nigga”, either with a casualty that unnerves me, or at all. So, I reasoned, why not try it out myself as I—quite literally—have skin in the game.

But last week, in light of the Post’s project, Piers Morgan wrote an essay for the UK’s Daily Mail advising black people to stop using it. He described the word as “a grotesque, evil stain on the English language.” This week, Greg Howard, a writer for the sports blog Deadspin, wrote of another white man eager to air this criticism: Mike Wise, a sports columnist for the Post. In his write-up of the news that Wise was just announced to leave the Post for a sports site covering athletics, culture, and (ironically enough) race, Howard quoted a column Wise wrote in November 2013: “The N-word is filth; it’s disrespectful, confusing and uplifts no one. I know of no other minority in the world co-opting a dehumanizing, racial slur used by its oppressor.”

Here’s the problem with the arguments of these men, and others trying to “co-opt” the word “nigger” by pejoratively dismissing its use. These ill-conceived diatribes ignore every contextual circumstance surrounding a word that has never applied to them, and dismiss it within communities to which they’ve never belonged. Though Morgan might have interviewed more than a handful of notable black celebrities and Wise may very well have spent time in locker rooms with black players, nigger isn’t a word that’s been used against them or a label meant to wound them. That they would arrogantly think their discomfort with it takes precedence over communities of people for whom this word “sounds like music” is what’s most problematic.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, national correspondent at The Atlantic and arguably one of today’s most prominent cultural columnists, responded to Morgan’s essay with a series of tweets, one reading: “In brief—you’re not qualified.” It’s precisely because neither Morgan nor Wise are qualified—by birth, by race, by privilege, by status—that makes their comments far more objectionable than that two-syllable “stain on the English language” they identify. 

There’s a theoretical term for this phenomenon, called discursive colonization, coined by Chandra Mohanty in 1986. Though Mohanty named it to serve her own critiques of how Western feminists related to third-world ones, it’s just as relevant to other matters of privilege, including race. Morgan, Wise, and other well-intentioned but ultimately clueless “advocates,” including one of my own middle school teachers who clumsily addressed the word’s resurgence in pop culture, allow an implied universality that the word “nigger” applies to both the black speaker and white listener equally. It also implies that the cultural and political power structures still at play in our society that constructed its connotation work to disenfranchise all races in the same way. This is just not the case.

Last November, Coates devoted a New York Times opinion piece to the politics of the word “nigger” and how banning its use creates a double standard where the racial and ethnic communities that use the word are wrongly held to a higher standard than their white contemporaries. “‘Nigger,’” Coates argued, “is different because it is attached to one of the most vibrant cultures in the Western world. And yet the culture is inextricably linked to the violence that birthed us. ‘Nigger’ is the border, the signpost that reminds us that the old crimes don’t disappear. It tells white people that, for all their guns and all their gold, there will always be places they can never go.”

Perhaps Coates’ is onto some deeper desire, that the very critics of the word are the ones who are most envious of the people most entitled to use it. Or maybe the debate surrounding the word “nigger” has resurfaced because it’s easier than debating the continuing inequalities that empower it.