A 45-minute Kevin Hart show might only be 10 minutes without use of the N-word, and N.W.A. would have never existed. Young impressionable Black girls wouldn’t be able to identify the boys they like and many Black, Hispanic and Asian men would have to come up with a new way of greeting each other. How else could non-Black folks request the most popular song from Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne?
We all know the history. “Nigger” was an informal slang term used by slave owners in reference to their slaves to disrespect their birth-given name. It derived from the word “Negro,” meaning black. The ‘er’ was eventually dropped from the end of the word and an ‘a’ added with the use of slang.
What’s with this word? We’ve heard commentary on how we need to stop using it and we’ve witnessed defensive stances suggesting that it’s only something negative we’ve made positive. We’ve been told only Black people can use it. But if you’re not Black and hang around Black folks, you get a pass like Mike Vick to Riley Cooper…let’s hope he fumbles. For years, Fat Joe, DJ Khaled and several other non-Blacks in hip-hop have been noted exceptions to the nigga rule. If certain people say it in a certain way, it can either get them killed or get them a Grammy. “What’s up, my nigga?” is celebratory. “What’s up, nigga?” is confrontational. Some use the word in private who wouldn’t dare use it in public, and some who use it publicly do so overtly. Confused yet?
I think that’s because we all are.
I had a conversation with a retired police officer the other day. This one happened to be a White man. His parents and my parents are great friends and we all grew up together. As he was talking politics and I was listening, I heard him say something pretty damn interesting:
“I’ve never heard the N-word from anyone but rappers and Democrats. And I’m around those conservatives. I was a cop for 30 years and even at my job, Black cops and Mexicans were the only ones using it.”
What a profound statement! Somehow I wasn’t surprised. Are Black folks the perpetrators of many of the things we complain about?
Like many controversial topics, there is no general conclusion on this one. I polled thousands of Twitter users by asking if it’s okay to use the word nigga regardless of race and if they use the word. These are 10 of the most interesting responses:
“In quotes, I would think it would be okay,” a White lady suggested.
“No, it is not okay regardless of race. Yes, I put it in use,” said a Black man. When I asked him why his response was, “I use it more as colloquialism with like-minded people. I don’t use it with negative intent. Others use it to SOUND like us. Also, other demographics use it in a derogatory sense and don’t understand the duality of its meaning.” A Black lady also admitted using the word, but didn’t find it wrong. “It would be contradictory to limit the word to one race. Its meaning has evolved with culture.” When I asked her what it evolved to she said, “It’s embraced much more than considered derogatory. However, I’ve noted that the delivery comes second to the message with the term.”
Someone else disagreed. “Not if you want your point to be taken seriously.” Another White woman said, “Never offensively…some people don’t like it and that should be respected. If I’m called it, of course it means that person likes me and we are close. The same way I use it only if I like the person. Race is never even considered to me.” An interesting response was, “If we don’t want other races to use it, we need to eliminate it from our vocab as well. Other races mimic what they see.” Being from California, I can relate to the following response: “I picked up my sis from practice and heard White and Filipino kids tossing it around like a beach ball.” But a Filipino lady said, “No matter the color, it’s absolutely NOT right for anyone to use it. People who use it are ignorant and don’t know the root of how it started.”
This young man’s response was clever: “I use it…all the time, lol. But it’s not okay for anyone to use it. Something I’ll work on when I re-read your book.” My favorite reply was simple: “No, keep it classy.” She’s right. Use of the N-word often demonstrates you have no class, like a student on the weekend.
But like dropouts, these folks aren’t concerned with class. They’re more concerned with being heard and being understood. They want to be expressive without societies judgmental rules. They live by Rick Ross’ lyrics – “these niggas can’t hold me back.” But could they be holding themselves back?
A few days ago, friends of mine were watching a YouTube video of Hispanic rival gang members fighting. The word “nigga” was being carelessly tossed around like a cheap prostitute. I almost felt sorry for it. Then a friend shouted, “Do they know how stupid they sound?”
“Imagine how we sound,” I blurted out effortlessly, almost by accident on purpose. Kind of like the use of the word itself.
Pleasantries, niggas. Oops!
– Enitan Bereola, II
Bereola is the go-to style and etiquette impresario and public speaker. He is also the bestselling author of BEREOLAESQUE: The Contemporary Gentleman & Etiquette book for the Urban Sophisticate. He is working on his follow-up book titled, “GENTLEWOMAN: A Lady’s Etiquette Book from a Gentleman’s Perspective.” Check his Website Bereola.com and @bereolaesque on Twitter as well as Facebook.