I grew up in a suburb southeast of Los Angeles and lived in a diverse neighborhood that would give the U.N. a run for its money. However, I was given my first notification that I was a problem as a first grader. The elementary school I attended had perhaps two percent African Americans in its population, my sister and I. One day one of my classmates decided that it was his duty to let me know what his parents thought of my peculiarly reddish brown skin and tightly curled, coarse hair. "My mom and dad said you're a n-word," he said proudly. His face lit up as if he had discovered the source of my constant smile and how to disengage it. I remember feeling peculiar once the word hit my eardrums. As its virus-like effect seemed to travel through my body, something inside me wanted to scream but I ignored it. That afternoon I went home and told my parents what had happened and I will never forget the look of horror on my mother's face. Her face gave me the impression that the "N" word was not appropriate to be used and I mentally listed it in the category of words not to be used.
When my parents decided that our suburb was not far enough away from the dangers of Los Angeles, shortly after the 1992 riots they decided to move further east into Riverside County. It shocked me as a pre-teen to hear the word being tossed around by my peers as a term of endearment. Most of them were listening to "Gangsta Rap," a genre of music that was banned from my very Christian family. I knew the word wasn't appropriate but the Hip Hop Generation was teaching us about re-appropriation; we were recreating style, politics, and of course, language. Rap music was teaching us to reclaim negative subjects like drugs, sex, and violence and re-constitute them into something useful. Does it make it right because it has a different context in the post-civil rights United States? Is the "N" word different now than it was thirty years ago? It's an issue that the Hip Hop Generation has struggled with since it's inception.
The Hip Hop Generation were samplers and remixers, taking things and recreating them into something specific to their lives and experiences. The "N" word was just another negative that the Hip Hop generation reclaimed to promote the mode of re-appropriation. Although the fact is, this had been happening for decades; but through the widespread exposure of rap music, the "N" word began to mutate into something more dangerous than its original intention. It's become a lingering reminder of how race is a central theme in the fabric of American history. It's a strange paradox in which the African American finds both comfort and displeasure in it's utterance depending on the context. Hip hop took the paradox of the "N" word and put it on the shelves and on the television screen, to be purchased, owned, repeated, examined, and criticized.
So here I was, a 31-year-old African American male who grew up in a post-civil rights, globalized, multi-cultural United States, being confronted with one of the most perplexing yet equally humorous and offensive situation. What situation am I referring to? The non-African American trying to defend his use of the "N" word. Which began with the combination of words I have heard several times in my short life, "I grew up with black people." Of course I already knew where the conversation was headed as the unnamed lobbyist shifted in his chair anxiously, probably searching for the right way to say, "If you hear me say ni@@a...it's no disrespect." Really? So why did he feel the need to preface his statement? Many non-African Americans use the "N" word with no hesitation because they "grew up with black people." I had the same peculiar feeling that I had experienced nearly 25 years earlier. The word hit my ear drums and traveled through every fiber of my being. It was sickening but simultaneously humorous. How did he know I would not react after hearing him use the word so freely? In that moment I realized that to react in a negative way was not the answer because the community he was from gave him the license to use it, which I learned as he described his history of growing up in the inner city.
The African American community has invited others to engage in a sharing of culturally specific practices. Using the "N" word as a term of endearment is a right of passage for many African American youth. To hear a peer utter the phrase "That's my ni@@a" is a badge of honor. During the recent conversation with a non-African American gentleman, I was bombarded with an argument of why it's okay to use the "N" word ending with "A" as opposed to the "N" word ending with "R". What's the difference? In the urban social space, ending the term with an "A" indicates a sense of brotherhood. However, Randall Kennedy attacks the use of the word by breaking down its use in his book Ni@@er: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word
. Kennedy breaks down the etymology of the term which is "derived from the latin word for the color black." So the word was originally used as a means for classification based on color. The word evolved in order to perpetuate the measures taken to uphold the racial stratification that was necessary during slavery and shortly after in the United States. The notion or argument that the term is defined as an "ignorant person" has no historical value and may be the result of an attempt at redefinition.
There's a strange unwritten rule concerning the "N" word, and it's a problem. I can recall Chris Rock's comedic rant about the very subject in his stand up "Kill The Messenger." In his rant he poses the question, "Can white people say the n-word?" He comes up with a very satirical system that is dependent on the usage of the "N" word in a particular rap song. However, satire aside, there is a large contingency of non-African Americans who feel they have the authority to use the "N" word at their leisure. One such individual is the controversial white female rapper V-Nasty, who showed no remorse for her use of the word and defended herself emphatically. She argues that "No one can act a race." But I would argue that it's not a matter of acting a race or even embracing a culture; rather, it's an issue of understanding. Something is happening to the "N" Word the further we move from its origins. As society has evolved, so has language. A word such as the "N" word, that came from an era of racist policies and cultural ignorance, can't mean the same thing in a modern world. For God's sake, we have an African American president. We are four decades plus removed from Jim Crow. We are in an era of near-total integration and socio-political freedom. Does the "N" word even have a place in our vocabulary anymore?
I would argue that even in the short time that the word has been "reclaimed" that it has changed from something that held weight to something that has been hollowed out of all its meaning. That is a problem. Why is it a problem? Because we have ignored the question in the post-civil rights era. We have ignored the question in an integrated society where cultures have blended into a hybrid, urban sub-culture where many traditions are shared amongst ethnicities. We have ignored the question in a society where bi-racial families exist as norms instead of anomalies. We have ignored the question in the three-plus decades since hip hop music made the "N" word accessible and repeatable.There is no true explanation or logical reasoning behind the use of the "N" word by African Americans, so how can a non-African American be expected to understand its usage? By merely saying, "That's what we do" is not enough because it opens the door for ignorance. If "That's what we do," who's to say that non-African Americans can't "do" it too? Such is the paradox of the African American, because entertainment has elevated urban style and themes. In the center of the urban lifestyle is the African American; whether or not this is an absolute is not the issue but rather the perceived stereotype. In the words of the great Paul Mooney, "Everybody wanna be a ni@@a but nobody wanna be a ni@@a." We have given a paradoxical power to a negative word that was once used to demean and oppress. We have reclaimed a word that once cut to the soul but have yet to accept the responsibility that comes along with it. We have tried to hollow it out, hoping that its original weight is lost in translation. Now, what do we do with the "N" word?