Who has the right to say the word nigger?
Not nigga, with an a, but nigger. Hard r.
If you’re Black, at this point into the article you’re probably enraged this word is being published in a news article. If you’re white, you’re probably just plain uncomfortable. You can rest assured though, because the writer of this article is also Black, which makes this okay. Or does it?
The word nigger is taboo. Even just typing the word makes me uncomfortable. Why? Partially because it’s a traumatic term that encompasses years of brutal history Black people faced at the hands of their oppressors. Because it’s ugly and holds too much pain. Also because it’s practically forbidden. Arguably it’s one of the most avoided words in our English vocabulary, censored before you have a chance to understand what someone’s trying to say. But does censoring it protect us from the harsh triggers of the word or just gloss over a history that can never be erased?
I typically hold the belief that if you’re not Black, you shouldn’t say it. Ever. But recently I’ve questioned this after discussing the use of the word — and if it’s okay for non-Black people to say it in plays and productions — in one of my classes. I wanted to discuss my personal opinion on it, which was a bit hard to do as I was the only Black person in the class that day. This blurred the line between having a fruitful conversation and taking the role of “educating” the other white students in my class, as all the white students would inevitably look to me as the definite stance of who deserves to say the word.
Besides obvious reasons of not having to be a spokesperson for my race, I could not provide an answer. Even among Black people it’s not clear who deserves to say that word. I personally think it’s okay for Black people to say nigger and nigga because I see it as a form of reclaiming a word that was used against them for so long, taking the power away from it by making it their own. This follows same way women have reclaimed the word “pussy” and “bitch.”
But is it exactly the same thing? Because the words “pussy” and “bitch” don’t have the same cultural significance as the word “nigger.” And I’m not saying this to rank the pain caused by different words as that argument is virtually pointless, but it’s still important to note pain is different.
A lot of Black people believe the word deserves to die because of the amount of pain it’s caused and probably also believe it’s past the point of reclaiming. In 2007, the NAACP held a “funeral for the n-word” to lay it to rest and prevent it from doing any more harm. Something important to note is the coffin carried during the funeral though had the word “nigga” on the side, not the word “nigger.” Nigga is the reclaimed, now colloquial form of the word used casually among Black people and in their music. The word nigger, however, was the actual contemptuous word used by white people in the past. But does laying the word down to rest actually pave the way for a future without hate or racial slurs? Or does it even placate all of those who have been traumatized by that word for ages? One good point made by Jordan Cooper is even if the n-word is laid to rest, “They’ll (white people) just come up with other words — like ‘thug.’”
Al Sharpton once said, “If you call yourself the n-word, you can’t get mad when someone treats you like that.” This brings into question the idea of what Black people are saying to white people on how they should be treated if they call themselves that word. In my opinion, white people shouldn’t be looking to Black people on how to treat Black people anyway. If they’re curious then they should just ask us. Also, because white people aren’t Black, they definitely should not be treating Black people the same way other Black people do. But that’s a whole other conversation on appropriation of culture.
The discussion on who has the right to say nigger is something that will undoubtedly carry on for a while. Within Black people it’s more of a personal choice on who can say it. Even I, as a Black person, feel hesitant on whether I have the “right to say it.” Yes, I am Black but I’m also a first-generation Nigerian. My ancestors did not share the same history as Black people here whose ancestors went through slavery. It might not even be my word to reclaim and I’m profiting off my privilege as an African-Black person that allows me to say this word with which I don’t share the same history.
But though I don’t share the same history as my Black brethren across the diaspora, I still feel the same pain living as a Black person in America, in a world that wasn’t built for me and is so eager to bring me down. In a world Where a police officer could take the life of my brother, cousin, father and it wouldn’t matter if they’re Nigerian or “African-American” Black. In a world where I get called that word on school trips for laughing too loudly with my friends.
Regardless of this, it’s still a personal choice among all Black people of who can say it, not something on which we might not come to a consensus. At least not anytime soon.
Despite the significance of this word though, at the end of the day this unfortunately might just become another battle in linguistics. But one that no one is willing to have.