By Korey J. Turner
Black people can say nigga and nigger. Period. This isn’t a debate. That’s not what this article is about.
Last week, comedian Larry Wilmore was the subject of severe media scrutiny for ending his speech at the White House Correspondents Dinner with, “So Mr. President, if I’m going to keep it 100, ‘Yo, Barry, you did it my nigga.’”
Contrary to popular opinion about Black culture, Wilmore wasn’t serving up that comment for mainstream public consumption, it was solely for President Barack Hussein Obama. One of us. From one Black brother to another, an unsolicited yet necessary and authentic ‘I see you.’ From President Obama’s smile and chest pound, the delivery of love and profound respect with which the comment was intended, was received.
The same way I don’t say “race relations” or “conversation on race,” I will not use the common euphemism: “the n-word”. The creation of the term “nigger” came with consequences that demonstrably still exist. Nigger is a word that was chanted with vigor across the globe as Black people were sold like inanimate objects, enslaved, chained, whipped, beaten, used as medical guinea pigs, maced, shot, raped, and lynched. Nigger.
We will never sanitize or erase the word. It cannot be sanitized or erased. These things are still happening to Black bodies. These things are still being covered up and ignored.
Importantly, however, “nigger” is not “nigga.” While it is a variant, we cannot treat the terms as one in the same. Slave masters were not using “nigger” in an effort to build rapport with their slaves. The same way the bullied decides what can and cannot be used against them, Black people have the autonomy to do the same. Nigga. How did my favorite anthropologist say it? “I use the n-word promiscuously.” And I refuse to justify my usage to anyone actively seeking ways to debase my humanity.
I don’t use “nigga” in opposition to attempts of being controlled by whiteness, as my existence is not an antithesis. I use it with those to whom I feel personally connected, as I understand we share the same historical oppression and modern-day struggle.
It is amusing to me when white people claim to be more offended and oppressed by the term “nigger”and its variants than the people it was and is currently being used against, as if their accomplishments were outwardly diminished after being called that too. This thirst to be a victim is only to be quenched when they, like their ancestors, can find new ways to police Blackness.
In the antebellum south, there were slave patrols to ensure slaves remained illiterate and couldn’t congregate. In the 21st century there are national television personalities telling Black people what language they are and are not allowed to use, and when and where Black vernacular is and is not acceptable. Consequently, white people feel increasingly comfortable controlling Black people in other regards. Whether it is a charter school bylaw stating “hairstyles such as dreadlocks, afros, and other faddish styles are unacceptable,” or atrocious think pieces stating how Black athletes must behave at press conferences. As Toni Morrison put it, “There will always be one more thing.”
However, I also respect my Black counterparts who choose not to engage with “nigga,” especially my elders. My grandmother saw her stepfather shot dead right in front of her. He was a farmer with many acres to his name, until one day a jealous white man came along. I am almost certain that for her the term goes hand in hand with unforgettable imagery. More often than not, however, opposition to other people using “nigga” is only to appear respectable and sensible for the white gaze.
Jonathan Capehart, a writer for the the Washington Post, concretized this in his recent piece “Why Larry Wilmore is not ‘my n – – – – -‘ ”:
“Now, if there are things white people should not say, then there are definitely things black people should not say. Let me be more specific. African Americans know there are things that should never be said outside the safe cultural confines of the barbershop, beauty shop, backyard barbecue or momma’s house.”
Definitely? White people don’t own Black people anymore. To align what is appropriate for Black people to declare as interdependent upon the standard for white people is to welcome the ideals of white supremacy with open arms. It implies Black people are second-class and that Black culture should be regarded as such.
Those in opposition to the use of “nigga” often call any elements unique to Black culture in front of White people “inappropriate” or “disrespectful.” These people do not want white people to feel uncomfortable. Historically, an uncomfortable white person could easily lead to us getting murdered. Unfortunately, nowadays that hasn’t changed. However, catering to white fragility has never served any long-term advantages for the Black community.
White people were uncomfortable with Black people long before we adopted the term “nigga.” Let them remain uncomfortable. I am not interested in White people becoming any more comfortable—not when Harriett Tubman, and Emmett Till, and Fred Hampton, and Oscar Grant, and Trayvon Martin, and Rekia Boyd, and Sandra Bland exist larger in abstract theories and Twitter hashtags, rather than in body, mind, and soul.
Furthermore, it is a popular misconception, that with the removal of “nigger” or “nigga,” we are preventing or eradicating white supremacy and anti-Blackness. European imperialism, specifically in various parts of Africa, was not a result of the creation of “nigger.” Slavery did not ensue because of the term “nigger.” Public officials are not hunting Black people like game because of the way we elect to self-identify or personally reference each other. We mustn’t continue to fool ourselves.
If I knew I wouldn’t get pulled over without cause in my new luxury car, wouldn’t be frowned upon for no other reason when I patronize my favorite department store, if I knew corporate glass ceilings would shatter, knew mass incarceration would cease the moment I removed “nigga” from my vocabulary, it would have been gone last week. But Black colloquialisms aren’t remotely the integral factor in the perpetuation of such vastly disproportionate racial bigotry.
So when discussing linguistics, let us not forget the most fascinating thing about language: like people, it is constantly evolving. If we’re going to initiate discourse on the dangers and absurdity of white supremacists ideals in the 21st century, I’m here for it. We need that. But no longer shall we discuss optics, instead of underlying causes. Let’s keep it real.