THE BLOG
09/21/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Nigga, Please

The word nigger is controversial.

It may be the most controversial word in the American language. It needs clarity. It is a word spoken with a forked tongue, and it speaks volumes when you consider the tonality and emphasis placed on it when used.

Its meaning is multiple, depending on who says it, the context and the situation. It is a confusing word. It is a taboo word. It does not work for everybody.

It is a dangerous word, and it is a word of endearment.
It is a powerful word.

It is a sensitive word.

And no, white people should never use the word.

There is no circumstance that makes it right for white people to say nigger or nigga.

It is a slave word.

Black people use the word frequently. In fact, if there is a black person living in America who has NOT uttered the word, they should stand tall and receive the NAACP Image Award. It would be great for the word to vanish from our vocabulary, but it probably won't. A lot of progress would have to be made to erase the word. The progress would probably take form when there are no wealth, education, political or lifestyle gaps. Equal footing might erase the word.


When Richard Pryor said, 'That nigga is crazy,' we laughed right out of our seats. We laughed because his context was so right. Black folk knew whom he was talking about.
When the hip-hop rapper says it in a song, he could be talking about his buddy or his woman. Years ago, Rev. Jesse Jackson went to a hip-hop awards ceremony. They were honoring him in some form, as he was preaching to them about the use of the word. He was actually challenging them to a higher ground. When he arose from his seat to approach the stage, the young folk broke out in song, hand gestures and dance saying, "That's my jigga." He was confused for a moment because it was so blatant and loud, not realizing what they were saying or meaning. The applause was a salute to communicate, "You are our guy." They said it with love ... respect, even.

I have heard mothers say in their proud-of-my-child moment speeches, 'That's my little nigger ... That nigger sure is smart ... That's my boy. Sometimes, it is even said against the backdrop of, I worked so hard to get my child to this point and we made it over some real obstacles, didn't we? It is also said against the backdrop of, we got over, even when the odds have been against us. I have heard women say, "That's my nigger," meaning that's my man. Or referring to a girlfriend, saying the same phrase, meaning, 'She's with me when no one else is.'
I have also heard it said, 'Let me tell you what those niggers did,' which means some outrageous behavior just took place. Something was said--something was done--with negative impact from a work episode to a family situation.

The point is, the word is a language-encoded word.

It means something depending on who said it, when they said it and how they said it. It communicates differently. It can make you laugh until you cry, and it may make you mad.

It is not a word that a white person in upstanding circumstances should use. The white connotation is quite different. It is a word that invokes violence. Whites use it to degrade and to miscast. It is a curse word for whites. It is a word that screams, 'Get back in your place, uppity negro. ... You are too big for your britches ... You are too smart, or too dumb, or too rich.'
It is an angry word.

What happens with the word, nigga or nigger is that when it becomes public and is used on television by someone of note, it raises questions. But the Reverend Jesse Jackson's use of the word nigger is quite different than the late four-time governor of Alabama, George C. Wallace's usage. (Wallace stood tall in front of Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama to tell the world that the institution would not allow "niggers" in their school. He said, "Hell no!" to integration.)

If anyone in America can use the word officially or unofficially, it is Jesse Jackson, although he shouldn't. It is the difference between love and hate and right and wrong, although both would be publicly slammed for it, and rightfully so.

My point is simple: As we get excited about the use of the word, cultural context is essential to its meaning. We buy the rappers' music and tickets to the concerts to hear them use the word. We laughed at Richard Pryor and other black comedians for using it. We use it in our daily conversations, and we should all do better.

But at all costs, white people should never use it. Under any circumstance.

Black people should stop using it, too.

Nigga, please.

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