My mother would often say to us, “Sit your black (expletive) down.” After arguments with my father, she would conclude that, “Niggas ain’t (expletive).” Many African Americans or those who would claim to take pride in blackness use the word black and likewise, nigga derogatorily. In the case of children, it is used to shame and to embarrass. It is an expression of frustration coupled with anger that is used to inform the child that perhaps a physical punishment is soon to follow if these instructions are not. When it involves adults, these words are intended to hurt and/ or demean the targeted person. Consequently, the word black and nigga are on these occasions then employed both as an identity and an insult.
The hurler of the insult can say it because they belong to the same group and the insult rings true because of the historical experience wherein African Americans were treated as less than human by their Dutch, Spanish and European oppressors and consequently referred to as black and nigger. Also, when said by persons within the African American community, it seems (at least in my observation and experience) to make the statement truer as those with whom the word originated created an experience by which to define Africans and later African Americans as black and nigger. However, when someone of the same group says it, it seems to suggest that her or his knowledge of you does not disagree with what the “white folks” say about you. It becomes doubly powerful and bad for the person to whom these words are directed. It is a means by which to ostracize and condemn.
But, the use and definition of these words within this context are accepted, agreeable and deemed true for many within the African American community. The rationale for the continued use of these words and their employment in relationships between persons within the same people group (i.e. “black” people) despite their understood historical meanings and the relationships by which these words were created (i.e. American slavery) has been explained in this way: “I can talk about my family but you cannot.” While I understand that there may be an intimacy and an insight that is only available to those who are within a particular people group, neither word originated within this group. The persons who first employed black and nigger were not of African descent and thus, not members of this cultural family. But, it is agreed upon within the African American community that these persons cannot use the words. This rule will never make sense to me.
This is someone else’s cruel joke that persons now tell about themselves and their family members, conforming their lives to its punch line. It is then not just laughing but picking on one’s self or a member of one’s community when these words are employed. Words that began as hate speech now become self- hate speech. And it becomes truth and the insult becomes part of the identity. But, how long will persons laugh to keep from crying? Many do understand that this is but a survival mechanism carried over from American slavery to be included in such habits like “scratchin’ when there is no itch” or finding agreeable what you know in your heart is not.
Instead of no longer answering to the name calling, we take it on as an identity as if we can make bitter water sweet. And I simply do not agree that the negative words employed by socially colored group A against socially colored group B are acceptable when used within the oppressed or picked on group, here being socially colored group B.
These persons understand that both black and nigga have negative meanings in American society and even within their community; still, there remains a strong defense of the socially constructed black identity. Social activists have made black beautiful and rappers have made nigga (i.e. “my nigga”) synonymous with brother. Both words were created and/or associated with persons of African descent in order to hurt, offend and challenge the reality of their humanity. But, there are many within the African American community that will argue that they have taken words like black and nigga back. Somehow, in changing ownership of the word or the mouth of the person from which the word comes from, we change the meaning and impact of the word. But, why then can persons who are not within the African American community not say the word?
Because “It’s different when they say it.” An example of such occurred when the members of The View discussed the name of a camp leased by the family of Ricky Perry. In it, Sherri Shepherd, commenting on Barbara Walter’s use of the word nigger says, “There is a difference between the way that you say it and the way that Whoopi says it.” For Shepherd, there is a difference between nigga and nigger. Barbara Walters attempts to assure her that she is merely pronouncing the word as it is written. Shepherd later concludes that there is no right way for a socially colored white person to use the word nigger but that she does use it within her family.
How do black and nigga/er maintain this dual meaning and allegiance, edifying and yet undermining human identity and worth? How does one not cancel out the other? It is because race will have it no other way. The hierarchical social system based on the social construct of race cannot exist without a bully and a victim, even if they reside within the same socially constructed or cultural group. These names and others will continue to be both an identity and an insult because this is how race makes us hurt ourselves. The experience of race has so wed itself to who we are as Americans that we unable to identify ourselves as anything else: black/ white/ red/ yellow/ brown/ beige, slave or oppressor, center or marginalized, privileged or underprivileged, a first or second class citizen, a member of the majority or the minority. America is one big school yard and you are either in or out.
The insult so often repeated becomes our expected experience. Before long, we begin to identify with it and then we identify ourselves by it. The black self, the socially colored in human being becomes our reality. It is all we know or can know. It is the only way that we can be seen or expect to be treated–no matter how insulting.