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Social Studies

The N-Word

By Vincent Williams | Posted 11/16/2005

A couple of weeks ago, I started to write a column about Allen Iverson, David Stern, and the brouhaha over the new NBA dress code. I don’t watch sports, but this confluence of race, class, age, power, and popular culture seemed like something I could really sink my teeth into. I get to the end of my first paragraph, I’m trying to come up with a sentence that captures the ambivalence white America feels over the more thuggish aspects of hip-hop culture, and come with this jewel: “America likes its niggers niggerish, but, y’know, not too niggerish.” Then I just sort of stared at the sentence on the screen, thinking, Wow, that’s a lot of “niggers” in one sentence.

I would have kept writing the column, regardless of the radioactivity of the lead, but then I remembered it was my birthday (Social Studies, Nov. 2), and, like the child I am, I was immediately distracted. Still, in the back of my head, I felt like I dodged a bullet, ’cause a lot of black folks don’t play that “nigger” stuff in any form or fashion. And they’re loud.

I was thinking about this very issue last week while watching the debut of Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks cartoon. Right out of the box, Granddad refers to Huey as a nigger, and I thought, Well, folks will be protesting in the morning. And that was before the episode got to Uncle Ruckus’ rousing rendition of “Don’t Trust Them New Niggers Ovuh Dere.” The irony is that, like The Proud Family series, there is some valid criticism that could be levied against this particular episode over some intraracial issues, i.e., how darker-skinned blacks are depicted vs. lighter-skinned blacks. Sure enough, when the Negronet got online Monday morning, there were cries throughout the electronic universe that The Boondocks was horrible, not because of the color issues, but because of its use of the word “nigger,” and there’s a group protesting out in Los Angeles, and Aaron McGruder is the devil, etc.

Y’know, I’m not completely insensitive. Obviously, I understand the hurt and pain that goes along with the word “nigger.” And I sympathize with the view that it should never, ever be used. There’s a great deal of history, near and far, that the word “nigger” carries. Regardless of how you feel the word should be used, I believe you must acknowledge that pain and that history before any true discussion can occur.

Still, as a writer and general lover of language, I can’t help but be fascinated by the sheer power of the word. The word “nigger” is so strong that we’ve come up with a ridiculous euphemism for it . . . that doesn’t really change anything! I giggle every time I see the faux serious look on white people’s faces when they mention “the N-word.” I mean, this very column could, under the right circumstances, get a white writer fired. You can write “fuck,” “shit,” “cock,” and, uh, “doo-doo head” all you want in an alternative weekly, but you got to tread real easy with the N-word.

Well, because I love all of you, and I know you’re wondering, I now present to you the Official “Nigger” Usage Rules (or, at least, the Rules That I Use).

Rule No. 1: White people can not use the word under any circumstances. Quoting Mark Twain—who I decided to give a pass, because “Nigger Jim” is the hero of Huckleberry Finn—or, say, Richard Wright is an acceptable exception. Quoting Li’l Flip or Mike Jones is not. Yes, dude, I know it’s totally racist that you can’t recite 50’s latest magnum opus about getting bitches, getting money, getting shot, and the many, many other fine ways he’s Uplifting the Race. But I lost my land, my language, my god, and my mind, and, in return, you can’t sing the hook to “Gold Digger.” You got the better part of the deal.

Rule No. 2: The word should never be used as a synonym for black people.

Rule No. 3: “Nigga” is still the word “nigger,” and all other rules apply to it.

Rule No. 4: If you must use the term “the N-word,” understand you sound ridiculous.

Rule No. 5: Use of the word for satirical, ironic, or commentary purposes is acceptable if it doesn’t break one of the previous rules. But you better have a point.

Of course, No. 5 is the tricky one. I guess we’ll see whether or not this column followed that rule. And for the record, yes, it’s wonderful that NBA players now have to wear blazers. Hell, they should wear suits, but then I always thought that. Of course, the NBA has made millions upon millions of dollars off of the tattoos, cornrows, and general hip-hop-ization of the players’ image, and the league was cool with it for years, but suddenly they’re on some ol’ Hoosiers shit. That screams hypocrisy to me. I guess America likes its niggers niggerish, but, y’know, not too niggerish.

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