Rupert W. Nacoste, Ph.D. | Guest Columnist
Right now, I am in the toughest part of my “Interdependence and Race” course. Language; that’s the toughest part of the course because that is where there are so many false claims being made that lets group hate live and thrive. Anti-groups slurs; racial slurs, gender slurs, and all that. And here at the end of the semester, I have begun to address the toughest of the toughest part, the use of the racial slur, nigger.
Today, many people recoil from the word, rightly so. But also today, we live in a time when people have fooled themselves into believing if you spell the word with a “…ga” rather than a “…ger” it’s not the same.
For those who don’t know, there have always been whites who have refused to say the word “…nigger.” Not because they believed in the humanity of the enslaved Africans, or more modern day black people. No, aristocratic whites just felt they were too genteel to say talk about blacks in such a raw, clearly hateful way. To get around debasing themselves by being so vulgar, rather than say “nigger” outright, they said “nig-grahs” as in “…those poor, filthy nig-grahs just can’t help themselves. Nig-grahs will always be nig-grahs.”
Did that different pronunciation, did that different spelling, change the meaning of the word? No not at all. Today spelling or saying it as “…nigga” also does not change the original meaning nor the original intent of the word to dehumanize and look down upon. No matter who says it, no matter the skin-color of who says it, and no matter how it is spelled or pronounced, to call anyone a nigger is to look down upon that individual as less than human.
African-American students are always stunned by this part of that lecture. Stunned because they have been lulled into a hazy belief that it is ok for them and their black friends to call each other nigga affectionately; you know, “my nigga.”
After my lecture, I got an email from a black student in the class. That student wrote:
“Hello Dr. Nacoste: After looking over my notes from today’s class period, I have a question for you. You told us that language has history in a group or society and all members carry it around. This made me think of how the n-word is used in the black community. Most black people know the history and roots of the word, but still continue to use it. Some try to justify it by saying ‘nigga’ instead of nigger, however it’s the same concept, right?
So my question is: what are your thoughts, as the expert, on why black people feel that it’s okay to use the word between themselves, but get upset when white people use it? I’ve even seen instances when a Hispanic or Asian say ‘nigga’ and it’s excepted; never when a white person says it.”
I replied by saying: So you have asked a very important question. Although I will address this question in lecture, here is a brief look at what I will say.
One, you are right, it is the SAME concept; somebody is better, more human, than somebody else by race.
Two, black people who use it claim they are taking the power of the word away from whites. Those black people fail to see that the meaning of the word stays the same until, of course, a white person uses it and all hell breaks loose. In that moment it is clear the word still has the same old power of racial put-down.
Three, those black people also fail to see that they are actually using the word the same way; as a racial put-down. To say to another black person, “you are MY nigger” is to say “I OWN you like a slave.” It’s not affectionate, it is dehumanizing of people of your own race and racial history.
That is why the claim of affection fails. And you should ask those black people why they want so badly to use the word anyway. African Americans know the history of the use of the word, so what makes it so attractive that some black people insist on using it? What’s really going on?
In the 60s, to show pride and affection in one another as a racial group, we started calling each other “Brother” and “Sister.” We young black people were also adamant about not calling each other nigger. We also challenged any black person, and anyone else, who tried to get away with using the word nigger to talk to or about our “Brothers and Sisters.”
We began to live what James Brown sang: “Say it loud…I’m black and I’m proud.” You cannot live that calling each other niggers, however you spell it.
Dr. Nacoste is Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Professor of Psychology and author of the new book, “Taking on Diversity: How we can move from anxiety to respect.”