“When is it appropriate to say the word N-word?”
by: Cathleen McCaffery
In the video above GloZell, an African American comedian, parodies uses of the word “nigger.” Although she is African American, she states that her grandmother was upset by the use of “nigger.” To her grandmother, this word has different connotations than it does for GloZell, a third generation African American. GloZell discusses the different pronunciations and manifestations of “nigger,” such as “nigah” “nigo,” etc… stating that each form has a different use and meaning. This builds on our last class discussion. We debated whether or not “nigger” has evolved from its original meaning as a derogatory term used towards African slaves in America. Some students said they don’t think it means the same thing anymore. Has the denotation of “nigger” changed over time? Other students think the person who uses the word determines its meaning, while others think that it is still a taboo word in American society and should not be used by anyone, despite their race. Within our small, diverse class, there is a lot of disagreement over the use and appropriate-ness of “nigger,” reflecting popular ideas about its use throughout American culture.
I have to agree with GloZell on different spellings and their respective meanings. Maybe it is just because I am from California but everyone I know my age from the Bay Area, regardless of his or her race, uses “nigah” in casual spoken and written conversation. Within in this territorial space, “nigah” is appropriate and allowed because of its spelling and pronunciation. It also has a positive association and is used to refer to friends. It is a term of endearment. However, I asked friends from the Bay Area and they said they would never use “nigger” vs. “nigah.” The difference between two letters is crucial and changes the meaning and agenda of the speaker. However, speakers like my friends occupy a very different stance than Mike, the white teenager portrayed in Cutler’s article Yorkville Crossing. The friends whom I know from the Bay Area are middle-upper class college students who do not fit into the stereotype of African American hip-hop culture. They are white, black, and Asian and none of them are considered “wiggas” like Mike. All of them use “nigah,” in the exact same way, in phrases like “my nigah,” to invoke a sense of closeness. Mike on the other hand takes on what is perceived to be an African American hip-hop identity, using AAVE, not only the word “nigger” or “nigah,” like my friends. He is positioned as a cultural and linguistic outsider who takes on an inauthentic identity. Mike is both white and male, two things that give him privilege in American society. As a young teenage, Mike takes on the identity that “many white male teens interpret hip-hop culture” to be: gangs, tagging, fighting, and drugs. This new identity contrasts with Mike’s racial appearance and social upbringing. My friends on the other hand did not adopt any of these things despite their habitual use of “nigah.”
I do not think that “nigger” connotes slavery anymore, at least for our generation. Our generation is so far removed from slavery that I don’t think many young people who use the word “nigger” have close ties to slavery anymore, or even living relatives who experienced slavery. Pop culture, rap especially, has also had a huge affect on destigmatizing its use in everyday life. The videos we watched in class of Fat Joe and JLo using “nigger” in their music videos shows how prevalent the word is in current pop culture. However, JLo received a lot of criticism for it while Fat Joe received none.
As Hill states, masculinity is intertwined with linguistic appropriation. It allows white members of society to claim terms, such as “nigger,” that connote desirable “masculine” traits like street-cred, strength, and power. Because of their gender differences, Fat Joe was allowed to use “nigger” because it perpetuated his image of toughness. JLo, as a woman, and an American musical icon is thought of as feminine. She is also aligned more closely with dominant, white ideals, while Fat Joe is positioned as “the other,” associated with a grungier, lower class audience. Classmates described him as “ghetto,” while JLo is perceived to be classier, and therefore white. And, “nigger” is still an inappropriate term for whites to use in America. While I think this is changing, it is still a hot topic, and the press uses linguistic rigidity to create stories and conflict.
This is either linguistic evolution or “flattening” (Hill). The movement away from “nigger”s association with slavery could be due to the fact that white usage is denying African American’s a part of their history. The new, positive use of “nigger” could also show how it is being reclaimed by African Americans and associated with a sense of brotherhood and common, shared history. It seems like current usage of “nigger” occupies a gray area between evolution and flattening. I think “nigah” has some positive aspects but “nigger” is still not widely accepted in American culture. It is reserved as a term used appropriately only by African Americans. The uneasiness on the part of white Americans shows that racism is still ever present. The need to tiptoe around sensitive topics like the use of “nigger” exemplifies current attitudes towards race and language. “Nigger” is one of the unresolved, unclear issues that people of all races and ages cannot come to a consensus on. America is supposed to be the land of freedom of speech but we are we really all that free?