This week I have chosen to discuss the ‘N word’. I had a discussion with some friends, a few weeks ago while in Abuja, regarding the usage of the word n****r . It was an interesting conversation to say the least. Furthermore someone from the states reached out to me and asked if I would discuss and share my views on the use of the word n****r/n***a by both white and black people. It is a fascinating topic albeit a highly controversial one so I was initially skeptical. I was worried about how it may come across. But then I back tracked. Nothing in this post should be offensive to you. Unless you are guilty of some of the points that I will bring up…and if that’s the case you have some self-evaluation to do. Right, let’s start as always with the origins. The word N****r originates from the Latin word ‘Niger’. The Latin word ‘niger’ translates as black. The word simply became the colour black in Spanish and Portuguese. In English however it became the noun ‘negro’ aka black person. In French, it became negre/negress. Negre can be compared to the derogatory ‘n****r’ and early English substitutes like ‘neegar, negar, neger and niggor’. Some people argue that ‘n****r’ is just a southern American mispronunciation of Negro. Now let’s go back to the word black. The dictionary defines it as “of the very darkest colour owing to the absence of or complete absorption of light; the opposite of white”. The term black tends to be associated with all things bad/evil ‘black heart, blackmail, black plague’ etc. Now it is debatable how a race of people can be described as ‘black’ in the first place. Who coined this term? Who decided that brown skinned people originally from Africa would be called black? Why did the Romans decide that Negro would be the term used to determine a race of people?
This can be traced back to the Ancient Egyptians. The father of the word ‘n’ was ‘N-g-r’ (pronounced en-jer) the word used by the Ancient Egyptians for the word we now know as ‘god’. The Egyptians called their Pharaohs’ “En-ger” or “N-g-r” which literally refers to ‘the god’ because he was considered as the representation of the sun and their sun god. The original Egyptians were a black skinned race (that will be discussed in detail in an upcoming blog post) and viewed black skin as sacred and a direct blessing from their sun god. This notion of the Pharaoh as a god spread across the continent; for example, in Ethiopia the term ‘N-g-r’ became ‘Negus’ which literally means king/emperor. Prior to researching I had always known that the word Negus was the Ethiopian word for King and was somehow linked to the Latin word ‘niger’. But going back even further it is apparent that Negus stemmed from the Egyptian word ‘N-g-r’. This word had no vowels as a vast amount of Egyptian and Hebrew words when translated were just consonants. It is believed that when the Romans came to Egypt they heard the Egyptians using the word ‘n-g-r’ to address their Pharaoh. Thus, over time the Romans’ associated all black skinned people will the term ‘n-g-r’ and as time passed they inserted the vowels. Which evolved to ‘niger’ which was then even further corrupted and turned into n****r by white slave owners.
Irrespective of its origins, since the 1800’s the word n****r has been a derogatory term. First originating in America and then globally. Even today, it is still a major term of white racism regardless of who is using it. Racial slurs tend to fit into three categories; demeaning nicknames (n****r, spic etc.) explicit group devaluations (n****ring the land) and irrelevant ethnic names used as a kind of minor disparagement (n****r steak- a slice of liver or a cheap piece of meat). Racial slurs have been used to oppress and abuse all ethnic and racial groups, but no group has borne as many racial nicknames as black people have; Jigaboo, coon, picaninny, savage, monkey to name a few. Much of these insults became integrated into traditional quasi-scientific, cinematic, literary and commonplace distortions of black people. These misrepresentations and caricatures, be it written, spoken, reproduced in material objects or the media; demonstrate the vast extent of the anti-black prejudice. Globally, the word n****r displays the contempt, disgust and downright hatred directed towards black people. The term n****r has historically defined, mocked, ridiculed and limited all black people. It still bares the same weighting today. It is a verbal reason for discrimination, a term for oppression and exclusion. Whether used as a verb, adjective or noun; it reinforces the stereotype of the worthless, lazy, dirty, daft, good for nothing nobody. No other name carries as much purposeful hatred and cruelty.
Yet the word n****r and its variants (n***a/n****h) are still widely used in modern society even by the very people it insults. I myself am guilty of using the word ‘nigga’ in jest or as a form of affection so to speak. Just like people use the word ‘heaux’ ‘b***h’ to describe their friends. Nonetheless, I have always felt that it was a word that held a lot of trauma and that I should not really be using. No matter how many times I heard the re-appropriation arguments; they never really sat well with me. We argue that ‘n***a’ and ‘n****r’ aren’t really the same word and besides, the usage of it by the black community has made it less offensive. This is debatable; comedian Chris Rock had a skit over a decade ago that addressed the supposed differences between n****rs and blacks/African Americans. Black/African Americans are respectable whereas n****rs are lower class and disreputable. As far as I am concerned, this is a false dichotomy; the word n****r is a derogatory term for ALL black people irrespective of class, earning, background, occupation, shade of brown etc. A lot of negative images about black people have been cultivated and spread throughout society by white racism. This has in turn been internalised by black people; from slavery, colonisation (or unshackled slavery as I like to call it), and down to today’s society. This is then mirrored through a hatred of self and your own race. When we as black people use the word n****r or its variants, it directly or indirectly illustrates this hatred; even when we are unaware of the psychological complexities involved.
Another argument regarding the N word that perplexes me to no end, is when SOME white people get upset that they aren’t allowed to use the re-appropriated word n***a. Why can’t we use it, when black people use it all the time?! They ask like petulant children. Really? Seriously? Instead of figuring out how you can breakdown institutionalised racism or put a stop to police brutality you choose to moan and complain that you are not allowed to use the word ‘n***a’? That argument is completely self-serving and disingenuous. It is white privilege personified. To be told that you are not welcomed in a conversation is something that some white people are not used to. They are used to dominating most conversation, having most doors opened for them and having their free reign of almost everything and anything, including most racialised spaces. That is the truth of the matter. Therefore, they have such a hard time comprehending that it is unacceptable. It should never even be a debate. You cannot use the word because when your ancestors were buying and selling black people like chattel they coined the term n****r as a derogatory alternative for black people. It was used whenever a black slave/freeman was attacked, beaten, raped, spat on, humiliated and degraded by white people. This alone has lost you the privilege to ever use the word even in this age of so called re- appropriation. The moment you coined the word to be used as a tool to degrade and oppress black people you lost all rights to using it now. It also lost you the privilege to debate on why it is okay for black people to use the word and not you. You are not allowed. Period.
Yes, there are differing opinions amongst the black community as to whether or not the word can truly be re-appropriated and if whether or not we should even be attempting to re-appropriate it. But white people do NOT get to join in with that conversation. Neither do they get to dictate how the conversation should go. The Fact that some white people i.e. Piers Morgan have the audacity to say, well if black people don’t want people to say it they need to stop saying it first. Absolutely Comical. Firstly, not all black people use the word n***a. Secondly, some black people use it and genuinely see it as a way of reclaiming and turning around the horrible repressive word that has been used to oppress them for centuries. You, as a white person cannot tell them that they should not be using it. You lost that privilege. You can however, police your own people. Tell them that they simply cannot use the word. No if’s no buts no maybes. Granted, as aforementioned, it is debatable if we within ourselves should even be using that word re-appropriated or not. But that’s for the black community to decide NOT white society.
Some white people claim that “it is a double standard”. How swaaaaay?! Like Jay Smooth of III doctrine ( a white man might I add) pointed out, if you are at a restaurant on a date with a woman and you put your arm around her and call her baby its fine. However, another man cannot come up to you guys and put his arm around your date and call her baby. Because… well you know, that would be weird, awkward and even offensive. No one questions why they cannot do that (unless they’re slightly unhinged). We understand that the relationships are different and no one screams, “that’s not fair it is a double standard”. It is no different for black people using the word ‘n***a’. We are the ones whom this word has been used on for over 500 years. We have a different relationship with it than anyone else. We have one type of relationship with the word and everybody else has a different kind of relationship with it. Period. It is not a double standard. It is THE standard.
N****r was and is still very much a term of disrespect. It is the ultimate expression of white supremacy and white racism regardless of how it is pronounced. That some black people now use the word themselves as terms of endearment in some instances has not lessened the hurt. The word n****r single handedly encapsulates the personal hatred, institutionalised and systematic racism directed towards black people worldwide. It is not a word that can be re-appropriated. It is a word that should be eliminated from all our vocabularies, whether Black, White, Asian, American, British, African etc. Obviously, I do not speak for all black people, this is just my perspective. As always please share your thoughts and opinions. #becauseknowledgeofselfisnirvana