The Duality of "Nigga"
By Kameryn Carter '20
Almost all of my dinners with my grandparents end in a discussion about racial politics. I am interested in the generational distinctions between their experience as Black Americans and mine. On one particular night a few months ago, I tried to explain my support of the word nigga to little avail. My grandparents, who moved to Chicago from the South in the Great Migration, feel that nigga is inseparable from the violence that its predecessor, nigger, carries. I understand why. The slur has by no means disappeared from the cultural lexicon and has been hurled at me several times. But for the better part of my grandparents’ lives, it was omnipresent in a way that it isn’t now. Recent events on campus and in the country at large have made me revisit my own feelings about both of these words in Black and non-Black contexts. What I have come to realize recently is that while my grandparents and I may disagree on whether or not the word should remain in use, we do agree on another thing—the reclaimed term of endearment is in fact inseparable from the slur and its history.
Consider the present—a moment in which non-Black students at Bennington and non-Black people everywhere use nigga in everyday language. The frequency of these occurrences recently prompted posters condemning its use all over campus. I admire the urgency of this response, particularly in stark contrast to the Bennington College administration’s refusal to officially address this issue even after being blatantly and repeatedly asked by student leaders on campus. I am perhaps most thrilled that the posters were placed in toilet stalls in student housing, as I believe that kind of intrusion and disruption mimics a minute fraction of the intrusion and disruption Black students feel constantly. In the same token, I am disappointed and angry that there is still cause for the existence of such posters. I am reminded of the elation and subsequent shock I felt at Black Spring last term upon viewing archival works and realizing that Black people at Bennington have been demanding visibility for decades but that we have engaged in different iterations of the same battle for just as long.
As the posters communicated, nigger is a construct of the white imagination. It is the fiction of Black inferiority and sub-humanity embodied in language. But while language is potent and the use of slurs are acts of violence, our language is only a consequence of our convictions. I say this to ask—what convictions beget the use of either word? Though we have seen some erasure of the slur in our lifetimes, we have not seen the erasure of the sentiments of white supremacy that birthed it. We have not seen the erasure of the ingrained entitlement that allows white people to use the word with ease, to resist when told outright by Black people that its use is unacceptable. There have been other words in language that the world has decided must be phased out of the mainstream cultural lexicon and at once can be reclaimed by those who the slur denigrates. Why is this conceivable in every other instance except this one?
Nigga is inextricable from nigger. The reclamation of the slur, its recontextualization into Black fellowship does not seek to deny its horrific history, nor does it seek to reinflict the trauma of its original usage. When Black people say the word to each other, we are identifying each other as who we are, who we have had no choice but to be: people whose histories include slavery, brutal murder and assault, dehumanization, and ultimately the persistent fight through and against all of these things.
By this logic, when white people say or sing or rap nigga, regardless of context, they are reenacting the violence and white supremacy of its etymology. No one is post-racial or post-racist enough to extract one from the other. When in the mouth of a white person, the word can only be nigger and nothing else.
Black people hold the duality of nigger and nigga every day—of the horrors of our history and our surmounting them. Of what whiteness has fashioned us into and who we are. It is not easy to be this embodied dichotomy. What is decidedly easier, though, is omitting a word from one’s vocabulary. Correcting those around you when you hear them say it. Considering your complacency and that of the structures you inhabit. Holding yourself and others accountable. This is the barest of all minimums.