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April 18, 2013

Who Can Use the Word “Nigga?” ~ David Foster

Can it ever become a term that transcends race?

I was born in New York City in 1978, the year hip hop was birthed in the South Bronx. The first cassette tape I owned was Run DMC’s Tougher Than Leather (I got Raising Hell after), and slowly but surely through adolescence, hip hop culture became a part of my identity.

With unsure hesitation due to my skin color and society’s expectations and judgments I balked, but eventually did drop the waistline on my perpetually baggier jeans, changed the direction of the hats on my head, and incorporated more slang in speech. I wrote graffiti, skateboarded, and got my weed from Harlem in high school.

Two of my best friends ever were black people from New York City. I worked and thrived on the black comedy circuit for six years. The first time I fell in love was with a Dominican girl from 173rd St. The deepest I’ve fallen in love so far was with a black woman from Harlem who has one of the most brilliant minds I’ve ever known.

I do believe some greater form of reparations should be made to the black race in our country if possible.

Am I credible?

I’m 100% white—half Jewish. I had a Bar-Mitzvah. Throughout childhood my family took annual, week-long ski vacations in Vermont. My dad pretty much always had a BMW that was his company’s car. My mom didn’t have to work. My parents were married, for Christ’s sake—they were happy! I had a happy household with an awesome brother and an adorable fucking dog. My bedroom was huge!

I was raised in a quiet suburb 17 miles north of Manhattan. There was nothing remotely dangerous about my zip code or the two zip codes bordering mine, nor probably one or two bordering them. There were probably 10 black people in my high school. Mostly everyone else was white or Asian, and most of the Asians bore as much Asian culture as a Chinese hamburger stand. I met my first real black friend ever in college. Am I credible?

Who is allowed to say “nigga”?

Is it only African-Americans, or is it African-Americans, Caribbeans, and Hispanics? Is it all Hispanics or just Puerto Ricans and Dominicans; or is it simply all Hispanics who grew up in urban environments?

Wait a minute—how urban does their environment have to be? What about a Cuban from Tampa, Florida? Is he allowed? Tampa’s not much of a city, but it’s not not a city. What about an Argentine from a good neighborhood in Queens? He looks white and his zip code’s crime rate is low, yet he is Hispanic and from New York City. What about Asians or Arabs? What about half-Asians or Arabs?

Does it depend on where they grew up? And, what if a relocation is involved? What if a Puerto Rican’s dad got a good job when he was 13 and moved to a quaint suburb? Is he allowed to say “nigga”? Is he grandfathered in? When is the age by which you have to have remained or arrived in a dangerous neighborhood to be allowed? And how dangerous does it have to be?

Is it possible that this is impossible to measure? Is it possible that rules cannot or should not exist based on superficial tangibles such as address and skin color, and all people should be free from verbal parameters, especially so long as their intention is positive?

I started saying “nigga” in college (1997, age 19), and it felt awesome. No, not because there existed some latent racist urge inside me that was waiting to be released; but instead, as an avid hip hop head who’d religiously memorized the lyrics to all his favorite songs and (initially half-jokingly but) then genuinely incorporated slang into his dialect, not saying “nigga” had been a consciously repressed omission, completely inconsistent with who I was (whether organic or not), thus contrived. But I had no choice, right?

Sure, I embraced hip hop culture and black people… but I was white, hence disallowed.

Nothing is more satisfying than release from constraint (which is why sex is everyone’s fave), which I was implicitly given by E and Tre, two of my best friends ever. E and Tre, like me, were relatively privileged kids (actually even more privileged maybe, having gone to private school) with a great education who loved and embraced hip hop culture from the ’80s and ’90s. Unlike me, they’d grown up in the city—Tre is Guyanese, E’s half Brazilian and had close friends from every race.

There was no specific moment where Tre or any other black member of our crew verbalized permission for me to say “nigga”—I just knew it was okay (probably once Tre started referring to me as one).

It was never questioned, either by them or by friends I made along the way on the black comedy circuit, nor my ex-love from Harlem (a highly educated girl who actually thought it was hilarious that people have a problem with it). Whether right or wrong, through my adolescent and early adulthood years, “nigga” became solidified as an absolutely entitled part of my vocabulary.

Obviously, I am not ignorant enough to not realize that this profoundly offends people (of all races).

Some claim to feel equally offended by black people saying “nigga” as they do anyone else (though I’m skeptical to their honesty). They believe the word should be abolished—that as long as it’s being used by our youth in everyday vernacular, it is sure to only “hold black people back.” An ironic theory, since its expanded usage in recent generations has undoubtedly coincided with increased enrollment by black students in top universities, a general improvement in the race’s social class, and the election of our first black president.

Could progress be faster? Sure, but one could apparently make just as strong of an argument that the expanded usage of “nigga” has been the cause of black progress, and not its stagnation. Obviously white kids calling each other “niggas” didn’t get Obama re-elected, but maybe their doing so is reflective of black culture becoming so integrated into the mainstream that the nation was ready to decide more progressively.

Other critics are more hypocritical, either as a result of less pretentiousness or hypersensitivity, feeling that only blacks should be permitted its use.

Obviously, this angle stems from the idea that centuries of racism and oppression entitles one race to use a word which they can prohibit all other races from enjoying. While it would clearly be racist to restrict any person anything based on skin color alone, two wrongs do often make a right, and permission to speak a word that technically is legal for anyone to speak anyway surely would be an overwhelmingly gratifying reward under the heading of “reparations.” (Reader, okay with sarcasm?)

One day a long time ago, some black person referred to a non-black person as a “nigga.” Initially it must have sounded ridiculous, but was really so very brilliant.

Broadening and re-shaping the definition of the word made it into a term of endearment for all men—a creative and even intuitive choice in my opinion, as the word’s sound does have a rather masculine, “yang” phonetic to it.

Suddenly, “nigga” no longer had a racial, but a masculine meaning, and eventually it began to sound ridiculous (to those of us hyper-aware of and exposed to such dialect) to refer to a black woman as a “nigga,” because she was a woman. Why not “spic” or “honky?” Why “nigga?” I’ve heard some complain. It’s simple: Black people were creative and bold enough to adopt their own derogatory term and transform it into a term of endearment. Black people pioneered a hip hop culture that influenced the styles and behaviors of a generation, thus it is actually a testament to the strength and creativity of their race.

I heard black kids refer to me as a “nigga” long before I became comfortable using the term myself. I remember thinking how unreasonable it subsequently felt to not use it. If I were to respond by saying or thinking that I’m not a “nigga,” I’d be implicitly referring to black people as “niggers,” thereby reverting back to the racist connotation it once held—not to mention behaving in a contrived contrast to a subculture and dialect I’ve adopted as my own.

If I do refer to myself as a “nigga,” I am consistent with more progressive thought, reinforcing its neutral, masculine connotation. The equation is as simple as Ebonics taking English words and assigning new meanings. “Dope” no longer means drugs or heroin, but instead a synonym for almost anything positive (beautiful, delicious, talented, etc.). “Whack” is not a verb that refers to hitting something, but instead an adjective that is a synonym for anything negative (ugly, disgusting, horrible, etc.)

A “whip” is a car, a “dome” is a head, not a stadium, and a “nigga” is a male —not a black person. It is inconsistent and unintelligent to permit all of the formers and disallow the latter.

Non-black people non-racially saying “nigga” sounds very weird and backwards, right? It’s kind of like “universal health care” or “black president.” It sounds maybe like hearing a white person speak fluent Spanish (which I do), or hearing a typical-looking ghetto black guy in the ’80s speaking perfect English with impeccable grammar.

Are these “wrong”…or are they beautiful, symbolic?

Ironic as it sounds, black people should be the ones most pleased to hear a white person non-racially say “nigga,” as he is not only obviously not racist, but clearly a product of hip hop culture, indicative of the kind of integration that coincides with social progress.

People are too often inflexibly married to principles of right and wrong within contexts where right and wrong is wholly obsolete. In a vacuum, free from its derogatory definition and racist intention, “nigga” is a word—harmless, in spite of being reminiscent of past atrocities. The expression “rule of thumb” comes from an old law that stated a man was allowed to beat his wife with any stick so long as it was not wider than his thumb.

Yet, continued use of this expression has clearly done very little towards stagnating the progress of women in our society.

Some people hear a white guy use “nigga” casually and take exception to him, thinking he knows what it means to be black. I can testify that most hip hop white guys are not delusional schizophrenics who believe they are a race they are not, and actually use “nigga” casually simply because they learned it casually. They didn’t pick it up from racist white people, but instead from urban minorities who called them “nigga,” or friends who picked it up from urban minorities.

I totally understand why [black] people are uncomfortable with hearing non-black people say nigga.

My ancestors did pretty much the worst things in the world to your ancestors, and as a result, there’s a good chance your life has been more challenging than mine because of that. I get it. Unfortunately, punishing a much later generation with an unofficial restriction on social dialect based on their having the same skin color as a group of people guilty of crimes from centuries past is actually so stupid that it’s kind of funny.

You can’t say that, because people who look like you used that word 100 (or more) years ago as they violated the human rights of people who looked like me. Sure, it was with a completely different intention and your use of it is indicative of the opposite attitude of love towards my race, but still…you’re white, so you can’t.

I’d love to apologize for “my ancestors,” though as a Buddhist I cannot.

I believe in reincarnation, which means I believe we’ve all been every race at some point in time, which means I very well might have been a slave and you my master (as a matter of fact, the logic of karma would almost guarantee it!). Though I recognize you may not believe in reincarnation—I digress…I am sorry for slavery, but slave owners were not “my people.”

My people are anyone I like as an individual, no matter what race, religion, or background they come from. I am Jewish.

Jews suffered through the Holocaust at the hands of the Germans just 60 years ago. I am sure that no German born in the past 60 years had anything to do with it, so if one of them wanted to convert to Judaism and speak Hebrew because it struck a passionate cord with him, it is his right to do so—I won’t hold a grudge against an innocent person on behalf of ancestors I didn’t even know.

What I feared after writing this would be that although my argument is thoughtful, it would be dismissed based on a lack of credibility (coupled of course with people’s emotional attachment to the issue).

I am not a published author, nor a social scholar, nor black. Not long after writing my first draft, I came across a book entitled Nigger by Randall Kennedy—a middle-aged, published, black author. I read the entire thing in one sitting and was happy to find that he shares my perspective.

I wasn’t sure how to incorporate the more important points of the book into my essay, so I figured I’d insert here at the end—I highly recommend it.

In regards to the idea that it’s okay for blacks, but off limits to whites, Professor Michael Eric Dyson says, “there is nothing necessarily wrong with a white person saying ‘nigger,’ just as there is nothing wrong with a black person saying it. What should matter is the context in which the word is spoken. To condemn whites who use the N-word without regard to context is simply to make a fetish of ‘nigger.’”

Journalist Jarvis DeBerry calls it “beautiful in its multiplicity of meanings.”

Black author Langston Hughes had a white friend, Carl Van Vechten, who used “nigger” in his writing and casually in his correspondence with Hughes. It was okay with Hughes because Van Vechten “had shown time and time again that he abhorred racial prejudice, would do what he could to improve the fortunes of African Americans, and treasured his black friends.”

“A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged,” but is instead “the skin of a living thought [that] may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and time in which it is used.”

~ Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes

The world consistently learns in hindsight that sociological philosophies of the majority were wrong. Most people definitely disagree with me on this matter. If you were able to read and understand every part of my argument as well as the book by Kennedy, and still can offer an intelligent rebuttal, I am open to hearing it: [email protected]

If not, then you probably don’t possess the tools to engage in such a debate.

 

If there were a name for “Comedic voice of new age philosophy and self awareness on a foundation of goofy hip hop culture” it would be David Foster. If that wasn’t too much to digest, then you’re ready for his uniquely cerebral humor. Native to New York, David is one of the city’s funniest up and coming comics. He’s appeared on HBO’s Bad Boys of Comedy and Showtime’s Whiteboyz in the Hood, and as “Sauce” on MTV’s Boiling Points.

In spite of getting in trouble as an adolescent for delinquencies such as graffiti and shoplifting David was a straight-A student. Around the legally transformative age of 18 he straightened out his act and discovered his act on stage. His Manhattan public access show grabbed the attention of MTV, and by his fourth year he was on HBO, Showtime and MTV. He also won the 2011 Boston Festival’s New York Competition.

 

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Assistant Ed. Caroline Scherer/Ed; Bryonie Wise

Source: graffitiday.com via Livia on Pinterest

 

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