Term of Endearment: Why the Word 'Nigger' Must Go


Michelle Black Smith I Race & Ethnicity I Commentary I July 8th, 2015



As a nation we are prompted by the recent massacre in Charleston, South Carolina to re-examine those symbols and signifiers that connote racism. While much of the focus has been on the confederate flag, and rightly so, I would like to re-open for discussion the oft-debated use of the word nigger. If the confederate flag is the symbol of racist hate, then the nigger is its definitive word.

The word nigger has a long and complex history. Rooted in American slavery, it has travelled and transgressed through Reconstruction and Jim Crow to the Civil Rights Movement to present day. That the use of the word nigger currently resides in the same place and time as #BlackLivesMatter is a historical phenomenon that is ironic at best and oxymoronic at worst. To whom or what do we credit this phenomenon? Anecdotally, sub-genres of post 1980s rap music are widely responsible for the proliferation and normalization of the word nigger and its reintroduction into popular American language. From rap lyrics to rap crew names, the embrace of the word nigger has created its globalization in present day speech. Once reserved for exchange between homogenous beings in polite/impolite company, the word now enjoys a life above ground. Like a weed, it has grown rapidly without care, and requires being pulled up at the root if there is any chance of being rid of the infestation.

Over the last ten years I have found myself bombarded with the word in music, and offended by its common language use in public spaces. Strangely, in my northeastern city where the school age population is roughly ninety per cent Black and Latino, it is primarily though not exclusively the Spanish speaking youth who are dotting their conversation with nigger on the playground, in the school hallway, and on the city bus. While I understand that there exists both commonality in cultures and shared experiences, African Americans reside in a space with the word nigger that no other people, culture or "race" can occupy. We who were niggers at the end of the lash, at the burning of a cross, at the bloody marches for human rights and human recognition have a unique relationship with the word nigger that historically and necessarily excludes all other parties.

A seemingly bold and cogent argument was advanced in response to the criticism of the use of the word nigger in commercially successful music and public speech. A generation that benefitted from the vigorous and violent struggle that fought for deniggerization now proclaimed a cultural appropriation of the word. Cultural appropriation assumes that there is either a desire for the thing or a desire to reclaim the thing in some healthy form. The question then becomes who wants nigger and how can it ever be a healthy thing? While I hear the appropriation argument, I am a bit skeptical if not downright cynical about the explanation. I suspect that the cultural appropriation argument has been retroactively fitted to explain the use. No cleverly adulterated spelling of the word (niggas, niggaz, niggahs) will convince me that nigger in any form is a term of endearment or power just because it is uttered by the people for whom it was created as a term of oppression. I've thought a lot about the word nigger this past year. Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, and Freddie Gray and the violent indignity of their deaths have forced the intent of the word into the light. The deaths of Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Pastor Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson in a Charleston church shine a glaring and unflattering light on the word nigger and its ugly history. Like the confederate flag, it serves no useful purpose in our contemporary life. I reflect on what an astute man said to me recently during a discussion on the word nigger and its usefulness, both within the African American community and without. "While they're taking down their confederate flag, we need to take down ours."