The English called Black people Moore's and then Black-a-Moore, before settling on Negro, a word which in Spanish means black. The English brought Negro with them when they came to the Americas, and from Negro came the epithet “Nigger.” After the word was created it was used for over 5 centuries in the United States of America to denigrate, belittle and shame the very population of people on whose backs this country was forged. Yet somehow, in the last 50 years, this word which carries incalculable pain of ancestors past, has become a basic fixture in the Black vernacular. Some say the softening of the ending, nigga/ah versus nigger, changes the meaning of the word. This logic seems ludicrous given that the origin of the word is clear; a slight dialectical change in pronunciation does not change the word in its entirety. Another argument is the idea that we can somehow “reclaim” the word.
In theory, the idea of reclaiming the word may seem appealing. A world where that word no longer holds power over Black people, seems like something worth supporting. Is this possible given a word with such a long and complex history? Would it not be more effective to put efforts toward eradicating the word, rather than finding new uses for it?
It is impossible to talk about the current colloquial use of the “N” word without talking about hip hop. Hip-hop culture has been the strongest vehicle for normalizing the use of the “N” word to date. Rappers and hip hop artists use the word in their lyrics, interludes and interviews. Given the tendency of the masses to emulate those in the lime light, the trickle-down effect into our communities should be expected. Children now grow up hearing the word, and in turn, use it themselves. Perhaps in a world where children grow up using the word, the shock and the hurt is removed if someone uses it toward them as an insult. However, are our children losing some of our history when we make the use of such a 'formerly' hateful word commonplace?
The “N” word is still considered an expletive in the world of TV and radio, which is indicative of its power, considering the list of four letter words not allowed on TV and radio is continually shrinking. Radio and TV edits censor nigger right along with all the other words deemed most foul in the English language. When listening to radio edits of certain songs, that have been recorded with the absence of offensive language, versus the songs that are manually censored, sometimes so much so that whole chunks of the song go into radio silence, it makes you wonder, if it is possible to make a song without the “N” word, why keep it? What about the word enhances the track, more so than the word used in its place after it has been edited down?
How can we reclaim a word that can still cause us pain when it comes out of the wrong mouth? Along with reclaiming the word, wouldn't we have to announce a world-wide, universal cease fire concerning the word, so that all parties across race lines would know, this word was no longer to be used to injure? Until that time comes when the word nigger has been neutralized and can no longer be used to diminish, demean or otherwise torment Black people, reclaiming it seems simply impossible.
Semantic bleaching and reclamation of oppressive artefacts are not only exemplary models of usurping institutional power, but they also are part of the African American tradition. AAVE is rife with semantic bleaching of terms considered offensive by mainstream America, from ass to bitch to nigga, and all exist within their own unique and intricate contexts that make them okay or not okay based on speaker, time, place, manner, relationship, etc.
When words, especially slurs, come from oppressive systems, they carry power with them. We as Black people know this power from the word ‘nigger’. Our Queer family know this. Our Latinx family know this. Our Asian and Native family knows this. I could go on.
But there are two positive reactions to dealing with these slurs: one is to let them simply die, which one could argue immortalises and solidifies its power. Think of slur words against Native Americans, which continue to hurt them to this day. That’s not to say this is a bad route, but it is to say that there are consequences to making this decision too.
The other positive is reclamation, which happens often. For example, the LGBTQIA+ community has chosen to reclaim the term Queer. The main difference between ‘Queer’ and ‘nigga’, however, is that the Queer community has opened Queer up to be used by all people, whereas ‘nigga’ has socially been made into a strictly in-group term.
But them what are the pros of making nigga an in-group word? Obviously, Queer no longer has the sting that it once had, and Black people can still be very hurt by non-Black people using the word. But the point of reclamation is not, I feel, to lessen the sting of hearing it. Rather it goes back to the rebalancing of power. As the word has grown in usage (really, it was always in use amongst urban Black people), it has become almost a right to Black people. Black people can say it (within reason) as they please, on television, in stand-up comedy, in music, on the street, on the block, etc. For white people, the rules are not the same: a white person in the limelight caught saying nigger/nigga can have their career ruined. That means that the word still has a considerable amount of power, but that the power is no longer operating in the same capacity as it was formerly under its oppressive system.
Not to say that social unacceptability of using ‘nigga’ for white people is a punishment. It’s merely a matter of history. Black people have faced racial oppression, white people have not. ‘Nigger’ is an artefact of that oppression. Therefore, Black people are the ones who decide what to do with that artefact and how it is reappropriated (because what right do white people really have to have a say in it? The word was never used to oppress them, so why should they say what gets done with it?). If Black people decide, we’re turning this into an intergroup term to refer to other African Americans, then so be it.
I won’t be the one to pull out the ‘term of endearment argument’ because frankly, in AAVE and amongst Black people, the term has been by and large neutralised. It is sometimes a term of endearment, yes, but other times it’s the equivalent to ‘guy’ or ‘dude’. A semanticist could even argue that nigga is slightly positive in a linguistic vacuum simply because to make the connotation negative, you have to add negative attributes to it.
This rant has gone on a little too long. But I think I’ll finish by saying this: a lot of times, we try to justify the disuse of nigga by saying, ‘Well, if we don’t want non-Black people to say it, we shouldn’t say it.’ But I find that in some ways very fallacious: it implies firstly that everyone should be allowed to do anything anyone else can do. But that’s not how society works, we put limits on what people can do all the time, even in categories. Minors are not allowed to buy alcohol, non-Muslims are not allowed to participate in certain Muslim practices, women are not forced to sign up for the selective service, violent felons are not allowed to attend public universities. Even socially, we can say that men shouldn’t approach women on the street at night, that children shouldn’t wear sexually suggestive clothing or that it’s generally inappropriate to make fun of a differently abled person’s differences. So why is it such a stretch to say that white people and non-Black PoC sould not say nigga? Why is it assumed that our intergroup behaviour makes allowance for their behaviour? Non-Black people have no reason to use the term, whereas Black people do.
Black people have been working for generations to reclaim this word, both passively and actively. And it’s Working!