As a new generation of non-blacks stays tossing N bombs like darts, intense debates on its usage rage on. Toure dissects its definition, ownership and why nigga still stings
Illustration by Hawk Krall
If words were celebrities, nigga would be like Scarface in the dining room scene when he’s a rich and infamous criminal, making a scene as he yells about the hypocrisy of the genteel folks all around him. Nigga is old and powerful and infamous, a word that dominates every sentence it’s in, making the words around it cower. Some may think you can use it innocuously, that you can just toss it in a sentence like garnish atop meat, but nah, when you reach into your vocabulary and pull out nigga you’re making a choice that’s bold, aggressive, bodacious, possibly revolutionary, possibly regressive, and never less than seismic.
You may think that nigga is a different word than nigger, but if they’re separate they’re no more or less autonomous than Siamese twins. Nigga gains power from all the pain and barbed wire and bombs inside of nigger. If nigger didn’t exist, then nigga wouldn’t mean much. And without nigga, then nigger would be in a glass case in the linguistic museum in the collective consciousness. Nigga says, in part, never forget they enslaved us, lynched us, raped us, installed us as the lowest of the low; never forget they think we’re monsters.
This, even as it tries to also be about love and brotherhood, because we know we are not monsters. We laugh at that notion, so yeah there’s a little gallows humor up in nigga. You may think you can read nigga or nigger’s definition in a dictionary and be done with it, but that word (or those words) is a Rorschach that reveals something about you, via your relationship with it.
Our casualization or normalization of the word, the way some of us have tried to defang it and make it part of the cool pose, has lured in some young whites and Asians who think the defanging is so complete they, too, can use it. That they could think that is evidence of why they should not use it. They should steer clear even if they’ve gotten permission from a few black people. The pass is non-transferable. Out of respect for the culture they say they respect, non-blacks should refrain from using it (do I really need to say this?) unless, perhaps, you are onstage (in a film or TV show or a play or something clearly performative) and using it as part of a statement about the idiocy of being racist.
But other races cannot understand the depth of the family joke because nigger is a Trojan horse filled with slavery, segregation, degradation, hatred and the lie that darker skin is a cloak of inferiority. Nigga is filled with Richard Pryor, Paul Mooney, Dick Gregory, Dave Chappelle, hip-hop and an attempt at reclamation and the edginess of brothers admitting to being scary to America and simultaneously laughing about that because we also know that we’re considered the coolest thing out. Yep, the double consciousness is all up in nigga/nigger.
I understand why some black people love to use it—they see reclamation, revolution and a cool rudeness. And I understand why some black people are against its usage—its foul history and the ugliness it seems to suggest about our present. Nigger symbolizes and propels racism, but is the word itself racism? Would racism disappear if nigger did? Is our problem with nigger or with structural racism, white supremacy, chronic recessionary level unemployment in the black community and the war on drugs?
Burying the word won’t bury our problems anymore than an ostrich actually escapes the world with his head in the sand. But yes, there’s something powerful in calling each other brother and sister, to reaffirming kinship and family. I’m a writer so I could never get behind the banning of words, but I can hope that we choose our words precisely. If you want to use nigga or nigger, do it with surgical precision.