Thought Catalog
May 15, 2014

Black People Don’t Own “The N-Word” So Use It Whenever You Want

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What is the issue?
In response to Kovie Biakolo’s article about who can or can’t say “the n-word,” and Jim Goad’s article about a white man lecturing others about calling him a “nigga,” as well as the comments sections on both articles, it’s time we settle this roiling debate over word usage.

Nigger. There it is. You just read it.

It’s such a magical word. Speak its name and it makes all common sense disappear.

I know some of you hate that word. Some of you are hurt by it. (I apologize for causing you any pain. But why are you clicking on articles you know will upset you?) Some of you see it as just another collection of letters. Some of you thought it was unnecessary. I could’ve just used “the n-word.” You would’ve known what I meant. But it’s to you that this essay is dedicated. This one goes out to those of you who prefer “the n-word.” You don’t have to use substitute words like poo-poo or pee-pee or “the n-word.” You’re a grown-up. You can say what you mean. Besides, whenever you say “the n-word,” it‘s totally pointless — in my head, I still think nigger.

Louis CK once joked, “It’s bullshit ‘cause when you say ‘the n-word’ you put the word nigger in the listener’s head. That’s what saying a word is. You say ‘the n-word’ and I go, ‘Oh, she means nigger.’ You’re making me say it in my head. Why don’t you say it instead and take responsibility … for the shitty words you want to say?”

No two ways about it, Louis CK nailed it. The “n-word” is like a tasteful raincoat that a flasher wears. A London Fog trench coat may look nice, but it doesn’t change the pervert inside.

You could argue that nigger is the most powerful word in the world, other than “love” or “money.” It has equal power to divide, as well as to bond people. It can soothe as well as enflame. Nigger covers the full spectrum of human emotions.

And I want you to know, it’s yours to use. Yes, yours. Take it. Do with it what you will.

No one owns a word (unless you invent it and patent it). American laws are based on the idea that in order to own something you must exercise control. If you can’t control it – well, then you don’t own it. Thus, we can’t control words, we can only use them. We own words the same way we own the wind. You can harness the wind, direct it, make it do work for you, but you can’t control it, and thus, you can’t own the wind.

If no one owns the word nigger, then no one can tell you who can or cannot say it. Yes, you read that correctly, black people don’t own nigger. Sorry, black folks. I’m not taking it away or giving it away. It was never ours; not even after it was “reclaimed.”

Words are approximations of feelings. They are representatives for our thoughts. They are symbols we use to reference concepts, to convey abstractions, to capture experiences and describe physical objects, and to talk a stranger into getting naked; but never forget words are sloppy, inexact things. They are arrows pointing to something else. They lack intrinsic value. We give them their meaning.

Take the word: gift. In English, a gift is a present, a consideration, an extravagance. In German, the word gift means poison. What must a German with a shaky understanding of our language think when she hears an English-speaker offer her a gift?

I like to think of words as notes of mental music. They are sound/pictures we use to express the song of ourselves to others. Some notes are more pleasing to the ear. Other notes are more jarring to the listener. But, when you think of your words as notes, it makes it far easier to understand the impact of a word.

Should non-black people say nigger?

Depends on how they like to treat people and how they like to be treated. If one wishes to blow foul notes in the ears of their listeners, then go for it. Say nigger to your heart’s content. But understand, it’s a two-way street. Some folks will lose all respect for you. Some folks will find you cold, mean, small-minded, insensitive, callous, fearful, vindictive, shallow, childish, embarrassing and I could go on. Like fast food there are trade-offs. If you want to say “my nigga” to a friend to emphasize your friendship – knock yourself out. And keep in mind that if you use the word nigger, others might save you the trouble and they’ll knock you out. There are a lot of people, and not just black people, who would be happy to beat your ass if you say nigger at the wrong time or place.

Should black people say nigger?

Same answer. Depends on how you want to be treated and to treat others. When black people say nigger, or more accurately, the more affectionate, nigga, it often creates a bond, or reinforces an existing one. Nigga is a fun word. It’s not even out-of-place in love poems. Black people understand why others want to use it. If you want to use nigga, again, go crazy with it. But remember that you’re one hard “r” sound away from sounding like a complete racist asshole. Saying nigger is offensive, even when it comes from another black person.

Tyler the Creator was at Buzzfeed recently, and true to his style, hip-hop’s enfant terrible rushed their offices, spread mayhem and eagerly offended people who were busy trying to work. A lot of them took to Twitter to vent. One of the staff at Buzzfeed tweeted about how it felt when Tyler the Creator called her a nigger.

In case you were wondering, being called a nigger by Tyler, The Creator feels pretty much the same as a white dude saying it.

— Ashley Ford (@iSmashFizzle) May 14, 2014

Nigger can be insulting no matter who says it. That’s the thing about words: they are cooperation of meaning. You bring one half and I bring one half and together we communicate.

Let’s say you use the word: blue. I picture the color. But what if you were speaking with a person who was born blind? How the hell do you explain a color? The word blue has no (or almost no) meaning for a blind listener.

What about: antidisestablishmentarianism? Be honest. That word probably doesn’t mean anything to you. It’s functionally useless. In both cases, personal experience determines the meaning of the words. For language to work, two people must come to an informal agreement about what the words mean. Otherwise, we’re just adding to the noise of life. There’s the rub when it comes to the word nigger. We can only agree on its meaning in a context.

If my father says nigger, it means one thing. My father is an American black man and thus, to most people, that means he gets to say nigger whenever he wants.

If my mother say nigger, it means something else. My mother is an American white woman, and thus, to most people, she doesn’t get to say nigger whenever she wants.

As their mixed child, I get to say nigger whenever I want, according to the inane logic of American race.

To anyone who suggests my father can say nigger and my mother can’t, you’re incorrect. My mother can say nigger as often and as loudly as she wants. She chooses not to because she hates the word. But she could say it and no one could stop her. This is a line of argument that obscures the nigger debate. Obviously, anyone can say the word!

What people really mean when they say someone can or can not say nigger, they mean the person doesn’t have the right to say it. But who gives you the right to say anything?

That’s right. You. When you exercise your right of free speech, you are exercising control of your expression – you own your freedom to express yourself. In the States, to ensure this right, we protected it in the Bill of Rights. But that’s just paper. More words. Freedom of speech is a right you give yourself, or it’s God-given, if you prefer that language. But no human gives you the right to express yourself. Others can take it away, but they can’t give it to you.

The freedom of speech (and self-expression) seems to be what makes so many people mad whenever they think someone would dare tell them they can or can’t say a word – even if the word is nigger. Well, like a black lawyer defending the KKK, I will gladly protect anyone’s right of free speech. I do that so that not one of us is deprived of the right. What you choose to do with your freedom of speech is up to you.

The other day I was in a Rite-Aid drugstore. A man behind me in line was using his right to express himself.

“Dumb nigger … fucking dumb nigger try and look at me … you go on and best not look at me you dumb motherfucking nigger…”

I could feel his foul, hateful breath on my neck. Being a dude who isn’t afraid to call a stranger out, I turned around, ready to tell that limp-dick pigfucker what I thought about his choice of language. That’s when I saw him. The dude was a mentally-damaged homeless man. He’d clearly lost his grip on reality. There was no grimace, no mean or taunting smile. Nothing. Did he have the right to say nigger at me in a public store? You bet he did. And I had the right to leave, to confront him, or choose to not to be offended.

As it always is, the meaning of the word nigger was determined by the context. In this context, I didn’t get offended because the dude was clearly batshit insane. Saying nigger made people pay attention to him. This is pure speculation on my part, but it seemed like the man felt utterly ignored, and he was using the most powerful word he could to make people pay attention to him. Some say “hurt people hurt people.” That dude was a perfect example of that saying.

If you call me a nigger, I’m likely to let it go. I’ll still get angry or hurt, but I’ve heard it far too many times for it to devastate or shock me. When I hear the word I don’t only think about the victims of racism. Instead, I also think of the ignorance of the person saying it. Rather than let any ignorant person hurt me with something as ephemeral as a word, I treat it the same as if they spat in my face. When someone spits in your face, you can get violent if you want. I just wipe the spit off and move on like a kung fu badass. You can’t let ignorant people play with your emotions. Am I suggesting you be like me? That you react the way I do? No. I’m suggesting you decide for yourself.

Once you understand that the word nigger is hurtful to lots of people, not just black people, but white people like my mother who’s been called a nigger-lover more than I can count, then go for it, hurt people to your heart’s content. No one can stop you.

Since words can’t be owned by anyone, none of us need to spend our valuable time telling people who can or can not say words like nigger. Or, really, any word for that matter. The only person you rightfully control is you. You can determine what you say. And you can say whatever words you want. Just be prepared for the consequences. Besides, the trouble isn’t who is or isn’t saying nigger, the trouble comes from those who are thinking it. Our thoughts become the gifts one gives – either a present, or a poison.

Good luck, niggas! TC Mark

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