Ed. note — this piece ran originally in November of 2013 in the wake of two varied sports controversies that involved colloquial use of the n-word in very different ways. Another year, another n-word controversy. It never ends, like the word itself.
The word nigger and all its euphemisms (nigga, nig, n-word etc.) stand as the most American word in the English vocabulary, it is the word that encapsulates the main racial tension in our society and the evolution of said tension, based mostly off the subtle shifting of power from whites to blacks and vice versa.
The continuous unraveling of social mores as expressed in popular culture has allowed this word to pervade our public spheres along with some friends: Carlin’s “7 Words You Can’t Say on TV” can all be said on TV now and at all hours of the day, save for the holdouts that are our major free TV networks (CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox) and even there you can hear the word “dick” as a pejorative in prime time now, among other so-called curses.
We heard nigger on network TV as early as the early 1970’s, not surprisingly on the first television show to showcase an all-black cast:
Still, in 2013, a tweet from a role player on a sometimey NBA championship contender yields the most pensive of public debates. It didn’t hurt that this incident occurred on the heels of a crass, near-psychopathic offensive lineman’s private text message to a black teammate.
Our shared history with this word engages in an endless conflict with the interpersonal history of the word. At one point the word was said most often from a slave master (or field overseer) to a slave, it was said directly and with clear intent in that initial moment (though, even then, you figure more muddled emotions lie behind it), but something funny happens when you spew certain words in the atmosphere — it stays there, it hovers over our heads, it is breathed in when we tense up and search for more air, it is expelled further when we gain our bearing and state our feelings, some unvarnished, others colored by our experience of past mistreatment.
At this point in American history, we either choke on the word or we swallow it, but try as we may we can’t expel it, not entirely, it is too embedded in our systems. This is a word that was developed to subjugate, to de-humanize — black people were force-fed the word for way longer than we have been allowed to argue about the word in public — today, it is still used to separate a person from their natural humanity, but its done so in more complex ways and yes, some of them are positive, lifting one above their simple humanity, bringing its subject closer to the person that uses the word.
To call someone a “nigga” or to call them “my nigga” really does mean something very different than to say that person is a “nigger” or “nothing but a nigger.” Richie Incognito’s use of the word existed on a different plain than Matt Barnes’ — neither one is technically “right”, they both objectify their users and the user’s subject in unsatisfying ways. Both men (especially Barnes in his public usage) could have used other words, but both in their particular situation felt empowered to use it.
Obviously, over the course of their painfully fractured relationship, Incognito was empowered to use it by Martin, either it was worded out loud or Martin did it indirectly by his inaction. Barnes simply used it because he was a black man, raised in America — for more on that, I cede the floor to the esteemed Mr. Paul Mooney.
I am a black man as well, born and raised in America. To go into the word’s place in my life could possibly make this post longer and more unruly than I’d like it to be — all I offer here is that I’m more on the side of Charles Barkley, the referenced Michael Wilbon and those who feel that way.
I don’t choose to engage in the blanket judgmental stance of those who say there’s no place for the word in society, that’s just not true. To be black and to say that ignores any and all psychic connection you have with the average black person in the streets of the South Side of Chicago, in Uptown NYC, the East Side of Oakland, South Central LA, rural Alabama and on and on — as long as these places exist in their current states, the word will exist. As long as the people in those places choose to exist how they please, the word will exist.
And to be white and say that no one should ever say the word just because you’re liable to get chin-checked if you say it is at once childish and paternal in the worst way, the way in which slave owners once enacted any edict towards their property, those deemed to not know any better, to not know much of anything at all.
In the end — though the word can still elicit the most irrational emotional reactions from those who say it and receive it — when it comes to using a word, any word, you either use it or you don’t, you either let it effect you or you don’t.
Similarly, if you want to abuse or be abused, it ultimately is up to you. The urge to abuse, though, will never leave us. Make the choice within yourself first, then maybe the rest of us will stand a chance.
More on Larry Wilmore and the WHCD
White House defends Larry Wilmore saying the N-word to President Obama (NY Daily News)
The Sweet Solidarity of Barack Obama And Larry Wilmore (New Yorker)
What It Means When Larry Wilmore Calls President Obama ‘My Nigga’ (Vice)
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