Ixnay on the N-Word Already
Dave Chappelle finally gave it up. Now everyone else should too.
Opinions, Tamia Booker, Campus Progress, Mar. 9, 2006
Dave Chappelle finally gave it up. Now everyone else should too.
By Tamia Booker, Campus Progress
Just a few weeks before Dave Chappelle’s new movie, Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, hit theaters, Dave appeared on Oprah and declared that he was no longer going to use the word “nigga.” He was concerned that in using that term and other provocative material in his sketches he was playing the buffoon to his large white audience. In the interview, Dave distanced himself from some of his edgier racial comedy that caused the dropping of thousands of n-word bombs over the past years. Chappelle’s declaration to no longer use the word nigga should please blacks who felt his humor perpetuated negative stereotypes, but he shouldn’t have used the word in the first place.
Recently, a white teacher at Valley High School in Jefferson County, Kentucky, referred to a black student as a “nigger” or, as the teacher claims, a “nigga,” while asking him to sit down in class. The alarmed student responded by calling the teacher a “nigga” as well. The teacher, who is currently appealing his ten-day suspension, defended his linguistic decision by explaining that the use of the “nigg-a” ending as opposed to the “nigg-er” ending prevented the term from functioning as a racial slur. He went on to argue that several students at the high school use the word as a term of camaraderie and he was using it within that context. Still, some students in the class were upset because they claimed that the teacher used the offensive “nigger” term, contesting that the teacher held a racial bias regardless of how he pronounced the word. The case reached the pinnacle of ridiculousness with the release of a video of the teacher holding up two posters, one spelling out “nigger” and the other reading “niggah.” He highlighted the ending of the words to explain the meaning of each word and continued to defend his remark.
The whole case makes me profoundly uncomfortable. Sure, this individual teacher appears pretty clueless, but should our educators really be able to get away with using the n-word because they end it with an “a” and claim that they were just using it as a casual, friendly colloquialism? As hip-hop culture becomes mainstream culture, where will the line be drawn? Moreover, why is this teacher hearing this hateful word on a daily basis in his classroom? Why are so many young blacks using such controversial and painful language so freely amongst themselves?
The recent news of n-word usage isn’t just limited to a high school setting. Actor and comedian Damon Wayans has been fighting a 14-month battle over trade marking the word “Nigga” for use as part of a retail line that would include t-shirts, books and more. The application was rejected by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which cited a law prohibiting trademarks that are “immoral or scandalous.” Some claim that he was trying to trademark this word before a racist, corporate, white man trademarks it. It’s worth noting that Wayans wasn’t the first to happen on this idea. A South Carolina man, Keon Rhoudan, already sold a line of items with the word on them but clearly noted they were only intended to be purchased by black people. So now only blacks can say the word and purchase this merchandise? Are we now going to mandate who can purchase certain merchandise? Isn’t that a form of segregation, something that we blacks fought against and still do today?
This word has integrated itself widely into American culture today largely because so many prominent rappers in the hip hop industry use the word frequently in their music. Some have argued that reappropriating and reusing the term can turn something negative into something positive. Others note that it can be a term of endearment. (In fact, Randall Kennedy, author of Nigger: The strange Career of a Troublesome Word says Tupac Shakur told him that “nigga” stood for “Never Ignorant, Gets Goals Accomplished.” ) Within the community, however, there is one important largely unspoken stipulation when it came to using that word: Only blacks can use it.
There was a point in time where this stipulation did work. It was before hip-hop music crossed over into the mainstream so this explosive term could be confined within the community. However, in 2006, where rappers are winning Oscars and going platinum left and right, the stipulation is now null and void. Now white people are saying nigga, which is supposed to be considered taboo. You can’t quarantine popular culture. So if we don’t want white suburban students walking down the halls asking their friends “whazzup my nigga,” we need to remove the term from the pieces of popular culture that these students are cribbing from.
We have popular rappers like Kanye West, who has songs like “Gold Digga” (“I ain’t saying she a gold digga, but she aint messin with no broke niggaz”). When I am around groups of non-black people listening to a song like this, they tend to self-censor and not sing along to that last bit. Do they do that when I’m not around? I doubt it.
When the black comedians who they see on television and the black musicians they hear on the radio and the black actors they see on the big screen seem to use the term freely, the stigma can start to fall away. When this language slowly becomes integrated into the mainstream, the thought that one can actually demand that a certain term only be used by “us” is patently absurd. We can’t choose when we want to “lease out” racial slang. That is not how language works.
Can’t we just abandon the word altogether? Any MC or comedian worth his salt should be able to be more creative in his use of language. Can’t we create a new term that creates the same feeling of supposed internal camaraderie the n-word provided?
I have just had enough. I am tired of walking down the street hearing it. I am tired of hearing it bleeped out in rap music, articles, and in comedy acts. Historically, the word nigger was simply used to demean blacks. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word nigger as an offensive word to describe a black or dark-skinned person.
A word that is defined as being offensive, one that whites used during slavery as a term of inferiority, shouldn’t be used as a term of endearment less than 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. The struggles that my ancestors endured, when they were sold into slavery, auctioned off like property, beaten with whips and chains, chased by dogs, squirted with fire hoses, convicted of crimes they didn’t commit, raped, had their homes and churches burned down, lynched, these are the images that, for me, conjure up the term “nigger.” Changing the ending of the word will never change that meaning.
My hatred for the term cannot compare to the hatred my grandparents felt for the term as they fought to make sure their own children and grandchildren would be afforded the right to vote, own a home, attend a college of our choice, and generally not be considered 3/5 of a human being. I can’t imagine continuing to use a word that conjures up such a painful past while constantly reminding me of the ongoing struggle for racial equality that I fight for each day.
What we need to do is invest more in educating young Black Americans about our history of struggle, our freedoms and our rights, and maybe then we can put the word to rest.
Certainly, some critics might tell me to lighten up. They might say that criticizing blinged out artists like Lil’ Jon who throw around the n-word like crazy is taking pop culture all too seriously. But, in response, let me borrow from Dead Prez’s performance in Block Party: “Would you rather have a Lexus? or justice?”
It’s a shame that politically conscious artists like Dead Prez don’t get nearly as much air time as Lil’ Jon or Kanye. The n-word was part of a system of African-American oppression for too long, and we need to be conscious about that past and thoughtful about redressing it through our language. After watching Block Party, which I thought was fantastic, I was glad to know it was probably the last time I’d be watching Chappelle loosely use the term. Hopefully, his recent declaration will influence musicians and comedians to start a more serious dialogue about the term and, hopefully, drop it all together.
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Illustration: Matt Bors