Yesterday morning, my niece called me. With rage in her voice, she explained that her thirteen-year-old son had received a text message from a friend saying, “You f**king n****r”. “I called his mother — they’re Mexican American,” she explained. “I wanted to know if they understood the significance of that word.”

My head whirled. The N-word had been my star example in the last two posts about using appropriate labels when bridging cultural differences. Talk about serendipity!

Her son, she explained, thought she was making a big deal out of nothing. He saw no harm in the text message.

I remained silent, trying to sort it out. Her son is 13, she’s thirty-something. In the earlier post, I talked about how some rap singers were attempting to reclaim the “N-word” and give it positive connotations. Jay-Z, the rap singer, had explained his use of the term in an interview with Oprah:

“My generation hasn’t had the same experience with that word that generations of people before us had. We weren’t so close to the pain. So in our way, we disarmed the word. We took the fire pin out of the grenade….It’s a generational thing.”

Listening to my niece, I began to wonder — was using the N-word really a “generational thing” as Jay-Z had insisted to Oprah?

“Aunt Jean, did you hear me? He called my son a f**king n****r!!!! I’m so upset.”

I explained that I had been blogging about the debate on the use of the N-Word and what Jay-Z had said to Oprah.

“That’s different,” she pronounced. “He’s talking about ‘nigga’. If the boy had called my son a ‘nigga’, I would have accepted that. But he didn’t. He called him a ‘f**king n****r’. I don’t like the term ‘nigga’ or ‘n****r,’ but I could at least have excused it if he had said ‘nigga’.”

I was stunned.

Are there TWO N-words?

She explained the difference. On “the street” and in rap songs, people may refer to a friend as “my nigga” as a term of endearment. “But trust me, Aunt Jean, if you call someone a n****r, you can get killed.”

While we were talking, I pulled out my Netbook and started searching. As I discovered, in 1991, the rap artist, Tupac Shakur, had declared that his generation was going to take the sting out of the N-word by using the word “nigga” and redefining it as “Never Ignorant Getting Goals Accomplished.” He is widely quoted as promoting the difference between the two N-words this way: “N****rs was the ones on the rope, hanging off the thing; niggas is the ones with gold ropes, hanging out at clubs.”

A ton of books and articles have been written on the topic. The conclusion of nearly all is that my niece was right. While the term “n****r” is widely regarded as derogatory, “nigga” is more ambiguous in its usage because of its pervasiveness in hip-hop and rap music.  Some claim that it is perfectly acceptable and others argue that there is no difference in the negativity of the two terms.

To add to the complication, some believe that ‘nigga’ may be used to describe people of any color, and its use is spreading internationally. Whites and other races are starting to refer to themselves and their friends as “niggas.” Oprah explained this phenomenon to Jay-Z in that interview, “I was once at a Jay-Z concert, and there was a moment when everybody—including white people—was screaming the N word. I gotta tell you, it didn’t make me feel good.”

Can a label be reclaimed?

I remember when my generation reclaimed the term “Black.” Prior to the 1970s, being called “Black” was an insult. We were Negroes. Black was equated with Africa — a continent that we had been socialized to believe we shouldn’t be associated with.

With the rise of the Black Power movement, all of that changed virtually overnight. We became “Black and proud,” and we agreed with Lorraine Hansberry who wrote about the virtues of being “young, gifted, and Black” in a widely acclaimed autobiography. Africa became the motherland. It’s hard to overstate the liberation from second-class citizenship that I and others in my generation experienced as a result of this shift, nor my parents’ initial difficulty in understanding why it was even occurring.

Other cultures have reclaimed terms. The term “gay” was once an insult and ‘homosexual’ was the preferred term. Now “gay” is the preferred term. Similarly, the term “queer” was considered an epithet but has been reclaimed as a term that moves beyond the traditional boundaries of sexual identity and includes a broad range of sexual minorities.

Chicano” was considered a pejorative term for Mexican-American and for brief period of time in the ‘60s and ‘70s, it became the preferred term for that cultural group. Since then, the term has adopted a more political meaning and is not as widely used.

“Geek” and “nerd” were once considered derogatory words, but now are used by people who identify with those groups. Similarly, “redneck” and “military brat” are originally offensive terms that are now selectively used by some to reflect a more positive meaning.

So how are we supposed to know which labels to use? And doesn’t it get ridiculous at some point?

The second question is easier to answer than the first. Usually the person who declares that this whole labeling thing is ridiculous does not belong to the group being labeled. For example, I once heard an African American male say that he didn’t see why he couldn’t call a Mexican a “wetback” in a casual conversation, although I’m quite sure he would have more than upset had a Mexican referred to him by the N-word.

From within the group, the label means everything. People’s group memberships are an integral part of who they are and how they define themselves. Rather naively, I once asked a colleague who said he belonged to a “nondenominational church” how his church could be called nondenominational since it had an established doctrine. He took offense, insisting that because his church wasn’t affiliated with traditional denominations, it was nondenominational. I shut up. It was his church to which I didn’t belong and his right to label it any way he pleased. My attempt to be logical was out of place.

How are we to know whether a person prefers to be called gay or queer?  A lady or a woman? When should we use the term Asian and when should we say Oriental?

I will say more about how to know which terms to use in a subsequent post. Meanwhile, my niece and I discussed whether her son and his friend even knew the difference between n****r and nigga which would tell her something about his intended meaning — they’re only 13. She plans to have a talk with her son about the historical background of the two terms and her objection to both.


Disclaimer: My apologies to anyone who is offended by my using the actual term “nigga”. Originally, I tried to just type “n***a”, but a sentence containing both n****r and n***a proved to be too hard to read.

Reference:  Reframing Change, Chapter 5, Bridging Differences

Filed under: bridging differencestesting assumptions

Like this post? Subscribe to my RSS feed and get loads more!