Who You Calling A Nigger?

This afternoon I have been in a lively debate with one of the sharpest minds I know. A young named George The Poet has released a video called Can I Have A Word. Now in context George is a current student at Cambridge university, very erudite and puts forward a strong argument through his poem as to why he has no problem with the use of the word nigger. Whilst I hear his argument I disagree with the use of the word on two basic levels.

Personal Context
I grew up in 70s London. I grew up at a time when words like nigger, golliwog, coon and spade were used quite openly to describe people of African and Caribbean descent. In fact it was also a term used by older folk in the UK to describe lazy people from South Asia. Even national television through a variety of shows supported the use of such language even though some would argue it was satirical. An avid footballer it was not an uncommon experience for peers of mine to hear coaching staff encouraging players by telling them not to be a lazy nigger. No one ever said that to me as I would have walked off the pitch. Steeped in this background I personally sought a sense of black identity through books that focused on revolutionaries like Patrice Lumumba, Steve Biko, Malcolm X, Toussaint L’Ouverture and Marcus Garvey. Many of these luminaries reminding me of the power of language and of . The need to recognise that their is power in our words both in present and historical context. I am reminded of Richard Pryor who was one of the forerunning comedians who used the term nigger quite frequently and made a trip to Africa realised the depth of offence in the word and refused to ever use it again. This is why I don’t like the word personally and never will do. For me it is steeped in ignorance and was used to refer to people of African descent in the main as lazy and feckless. I could care less if it has cadence in a hip hop song my frame of reference is negativity. Can the meaning of this word change? George reference the terms spastic and retard whose words weren’t birthed in negativity.

Is the term transferrable?
Interestingly enough I have seen the term used quite interchangeably amongst youth of different ethnic backgrounds. A couple weeks back I saw variations of the term nigga for the clothing brand supreme and on two rather popular cartoon characters. The youth involved felt no harm was being done and yet when we engaged on how others would find it offensive they removed the items. I didn’t force them to just made an observation which begs the question. If two people of African descent can refer to each other as nigger, whether affectionately or disparagingly then why not others? At this point I should raise I also take issue with gays who would call each other as ‘a big queer’ yet get offended by those who would use the term that are not gay or even women who refer to each other as ‘bitch’! Whilst I understand that vocabulary can be localised, a term that is pejorative (and yes I know queer had it’s own etymology) and is considered so in the mainstream will still be loaded. Yes words don’t have power in and of themselves but if the overwhelming universal context is negative I take issue with the word, be it nigga, queer or bitch.

Here it is though. Censorship sucks. You can’t tell a person in general not to use a word. The word nigger is not restricted to just black people but in an historical context refers to any group of people considered feckless. This is in the main has not changed. However with the same freedom that is afforded people to use words how they will if a black person can use the term and use it freely then don’t take issue with someone who is non black using the term either, whether it be a term of endearment or a curse. If a black person can use the term to denote brotherhood then by all means who can question a white person if they use the term with same affection. Who can really take issue with Axl Rose when he sings “Police and niggers, that’s right, Get outta my way, Don’t need to buy none of your , Gold chains today” if you are just as comfortable with Busta Rhymes rapping “Captain of this ship, so call me the pilot I leave you and your crew to collide with me, Die, stomp on a nigga, just like a herd of a thousand cattle”. But hey as we say, it’s all about context.

I rest assure that for many within the black community and outside too, the richness of the English language allows one to embrace less loaded words for endearment, or displeasure, but for those who wish to be called nigger, or coon, or whatever, go ahead, knock yourself out.

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