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The N Word

Ethnicity and Culture

This is a clear and straightforward essay from Tiffany Booker-James that she has agreed to let me share with you, followed by a different take on the same subject by Nathan Woolbright. 

The N-Word


         The words Negro, nigger, and nigga have always been a sensitive topic, yet it is a topic that needs to be addressed in light of the more common use of its vernacular. One word is used to describe a color, while the others are used to define a people.  It’s very clear to many the negative connotation these words carry, but where did these words come from? Furthermore, is there a difference between the word nigger and nigga; and why is it that African-Americans now use the word nigga to degrade each other in today’s society? These words, in spite of their spelling, still holds the same degrading power as it did during the time of slavery, and they are still spoken out of cruelty and ignorance, but who is to blame? Can one still blame the Spaniards for considering people of a darker skin tone –Black? Can we blame the Europeans for perpetuating their hatred and ignorance of superiority over a race of people to the point they felt it lawful to define and dehumanize them?  Or does the blame lie with the African-American race as we use this degrading labeling on our own kind, thus becoming the victimizer? Either way nigger or nigga are words that should be eliminated from the vocabulary of every human being.

         According to Anthony T. Browder in from The Browder File: 22 Essays on the African-American Experience, “The Portuguese were the first to enslave Afrikans and they were the first to call them Negroes. When the Spanish became involved in the slave trade, they also used the word Negro to describe Afrikans.  The word Negro is an adjective to describe the color Black in Portuguese and Spanish, but during the slave trade it became a noun used to describe a race of people” (qtd. in Trinicenter, par. 1).  It is ironic that the word Negro is so closely related to the Greek word Necro, which means death. Death is exactly what came with being a Negro, when it came to European slavery.  The Europeans were conduits of physical, mental, and spiritual death to enslaved Africans and eventually to African-Americans. It is not clear how the word nigger came to be, but Lerone Bennett, Jr., senior editor of Ebony magazine notes, that Americans of African descent have been arguing about names ever since they were forcibly transported from Africa by Europeans who arbitrarily branded them "Blackamoors," "Moors," "negers," and "negros" (Ebony 23). The Europeans no longer used the word to describe a color, but used it to describe a people. No matter what the origin, this word was used as a weapon to destroy and kill the mind and spirit of a race, and has become the self-fulfilling prophecy for many African-Americans today. So many people have forgotten or either do not realize the destruction behind this racial slur; that it has simply become another by-word with a forgotten history.

         Ignorance is the state of being uneducated, unaware, or uniformed. There is an old saying, “What you don’t know, won’t hurt you,” but I contend that what you don’t know can stifle you from moving ahead. There are so many young African-Americans walking in ignorance to the history of their race. For example, when I was growing up, my attentive parents often took opportunities to teach me about and encouraged me not to sit on the back of a public transportation bus. Their ideology came from the idea that there were many who fought for, were imprisoned, and even died for my right to sit anywhere on a public bus. However, I consistently watched as my African-American friends immediately flocked to the back of a bus. I used to mentally ask myself, “Do they not know their history?” If they did, did they not value the costly sacrifices that were made for them before they were ever born? I concluded after years of observing many of their wild and rude behavior on the back of the bus that they had not fully comprehended the ransom paid for the privilege to sit anywhere on the bus, and to be viewed as a respected citizen just like the white race.

In Chicago, where I grew up there is a street named after a fourteen-year old, African- American boy name Emmitt Till, who was brutally beaten and murdered in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman. He was dragged out of his great-uncle’s home a few days after the alleged incident by the woman’s husband and his brother. Emmitt was beaten, his eye was gouged out, and he was shot in the head and thrown in the river. When his body was discovered, his mother had him flown back to Chicago, and insisted on an open casket funeral to show the world the brutality of the murder. Support and protest began to break out all over America. This story was so prominent in Chicago that throughout the years, you would read about the story, and even how the fight for justice was still contending to the point that years later, the case of Emmitt Till was reopened. I want to paint a clear picture of this story before recalling an incident that took place at a barbecue a few years back in Chicago. The barbecue was coming to an end when a friend asked if he could get a ride home. He stated that he lived on Emmitt Till Street. In response, my cousin leaned over to me and said, “Did he say he lived with Emmitt Till?” she went on to say, “I think I know him.” My heart sunk because I immediately realized she didn’t recognize who Emmitt Till was. Later, it was confirmed that she did not know anything about him, but that she somehow recognized the name. I recalled the story to her that I had heard from my dad. Emmitt Till’s family never stopped fighting for justice and through his death raised awareness, support, and scrutiny across the United States about the civil rights of Blacks in Mississippi. The case caused many people, including whites to come together and support the fight for the rights of Blacks. Not knowing our history, in my opinion, hinders us in our efforts to know what we are capable of doing in spite of the adversity we endured and still endure today because of the color of our skin. It also keeps us walking in ignorance to so many important facts, such as: there were whites who didn’t agree with the brutal treatment of color people. I know many African-Americans believe that all whites were prejudiced and never did anything to help, and to this day won’t take help from whites because of this false belief.

I have also been a victim of ignorance in regards to the word nigga. It has become widely and socially acceptable in my culture, and I used that as an excuse for my usage of the word when I was younger. My parents, even though they taught me a lot concerning Black history, they didn’t speak much about the word nigger. Yet, I heard the word being pronounced as nigga by African-Americans on sitcoms, stand-up comedy shows, music videos, and amongst my peers. It wasn’t until I watched a documentary about the words nigger and nigga that I gained a true understanding of its derogatory meaning. I vowed never to use that word again, even though I must admit it was hard at first because it had become a common use of my vernacular. I’ve heard so many people say that nigger means ignorant, and I believe it has become a self-fulfilling prophesy in the African- American culture; especially this younger generation. Their behavior accompanied by the use of this word confirms my assumption. There are African-Americans that claim the word nigga is different from nigger in a sense that it is a label that they gave themselves to build a private community amongst one another; as a sign of endearment. It has become a cultural identity, which is accepted by many African-Americans today. They do not realize their behavior, in addition to the use of the word nigga, implies what many people outside that private community think, that it means thuggish, ghetto, ignorant, violent, dangerous, and Black.  Then, we as African-Americans have the nerve to be indignant when someone of another race is comfortable using the word nigga in the same context that we do to one another. This confirms that the word nigger and nigga have the same negative connotation, if it were not so, why is it such a controversy when a white person uses the word nigga? We have set a low standard of who we are as a race. The use of the word nigga perpetuates the degrading and stereotyping of African- Americans, no matter who uses it or how it is used. I am not sure who is to blame; I can point the finger at the Spanish, the Europeans, African-Americans, and parents. I can even blame our public education system for not teaching the ugly truth concerning African-American history. I know it is too ugly to look at, but until we are brave enough to look into the face of this ugliness, we will all walk in ignorance to what African-Americans endured. The impact that this perpetual evil has on this current generation of African-Americans is a huge disconnect from their history. As a result, they have picked up the “labeling chains” and have ignorantly placed them on one another.  I believe that the word Negro, nigger, and nigga should have been banned from the vernacular of all humans when slavery ended. I also believe that because of ignorance, many African-Americans are imprisoned to a slavery mindset. The younger generations of African- Americans are behaving the way they have been projected. They don’t reach for anything more because all they see is the culture they created for themselves, which is far from who they are and what they can accomplish. Even though ignorance has played a part in the identity and the history of the African-American race, it can no longer be an excuse with all the available resources we have in our reach today.









Works Cited

Bennett, Jr., Lerone. “What's In a Name?” Ebony Magazine Nov. 1967: 46+.        Web. 19 Feb. 2014.

Nantambu, Dr. Kwame. “Origin of terms 'Negro' and Afrika.”Trinicenter     2007. Web. 19 Feb. 2014


The “N” Word


         Black people saying the “N” word is not the most surprising or troubling attribute of American lingo; although, I do not consider this a “Black” problem. To believe so, only further contributes to criminalizing the Black experience and culture. The English language is ripe with words and terminology that degrade the “other.” Martin Luther King once stated, “Somebody told a lie one day. They couched it in language. They made everything black ugly and evil. Look in your dictionary and see the synonyms for the word black. It’s always something degrading, low, and sinister.” Although this is rarely quoted, it is a powerful statement about the use of language in race and race relations. It’s about how all of these different variables work together to create a divide and ranking system between two of America’s most discussed “races”: Blacks and Whites. If we take a look at the word “white”; it’s always in reference to something pure, high, and clean. 

         Much like other modes of oppression, the “N” word was used against us, to the point that some of us have become accustomed to and often perpetuate it ourselves. Almost without a choice; it becomes a stamped phrase lingering in our minds.We have managed to carry this word with us as Blacks, and have given it so much power. A power that has held us against our own will as Blacks to progress from the offense it caused our ancestors.

         In society; the “N” word is mostly used to greet, compliment, and of course in some instances; put down a person of the Black ethnicity. Influenced by the urban society of today, this is the mindset of how majority of Blacks comprehend the use of the “N” word; they would rather be called a “nigga” than a “nigger”. Apparently, when using “nigga”, they are referring to a companion or someone close to them. Many would ask: what really is the difference between the two of these terms; especially if “nigga” is derived from the word “nigger”? Ironically, I guess changing the ending to an already offensive word can make it less offensive; almost friendly. The use of “nigga” instead of “nigger” is more complex than it seems. When it’s used within the African American community, it signifies recognition of a shared experience. It’s almost like an inside joke or inner laughter is taking place towards the dehumanization. It’s like laughing to keep from crying while at the same time saying, “But I’m still here.” Within this seemingly unrecognized state of tyranny, we’re surviving. I am in no way advocating for the usage of the “N” word. I’m just saying, I understand; this is what I believe many people are trying to articulate, when they say we’ve taken the word back.

         Rappers and entertainers are seen in some way as “public” leaders and mentors for youth. Therefore, when Jay Z and Kanye West tell the youth the “N” word is a term of endearment; they buy into that philosophy due to being ignorant of the history of the word, and not because they simply want to be ignorant. Today’s youth truly believe there is a difference between using the word with an “a” or “er” on the end as term of endearment, therefore, I can’t side with the logic of today’s youth; black youth in particular, wanting and choosing to be ignorant about the history of the word if they truly believe there is nothing wrong in using it if used with an “a” on the end.

In regards to other publicized individuals and celebrities: when apparent outsiders like Paula Deen, Madonna or John Mayer; who has publicly used the “N” word, it’s automatically rejected. This is not done in some sort of hypocrisy but instead out of an often unspoken understanding that these people do not share the lived experience of being boxed into the “nigga” identity by main stream society.


         Ever since the “rebirth” of the “N” word into the urban hip hop culture of today, the people in our society who find offense to it have felt the need that anyone who uses it; does not care about its past meaning, use or even black history overall. Anyone who uses this word is considered to be ignorant and socially blinded by the hardships of Black ancestors. Not only has this word become somewhat socially acceptable to use by Blacks, but other races these days tend to find it acceptable to use too; although, for most Blacks, their first instinct is to become defensive when someone of a different race uses the word against or towards them.

In my opinion, it seems the true history of the usage of the “N” word is based on its revamped or recreated definitions of the past; during the slavery years, Whites turned the original term, which was used as a descriptor; with no value attached to it, and created a new definition with the intent to degrade Blacks. So when I think about how the “N” word is used today, I’ve realized how our urban culture has reclaimed this term or word and have created yet, another definition for it; a definition that seems way less derogatory than its original or historically intended use.

         So should people be prohibited from using this word? And if so, how do we stop them from using it? I find it almost impossible to forcefully erase a term from common language. If people continue to identify with it; whether misguided or not, it will still be used. However, much of our concerns could be solved if we use our own legacy as a guide. There are words much more powerful than the “N” word will ever be. Like for instance; Sankofa. Sankofa means, “One must return to the past in order to move forward”. The symbol of Sankofa is that of a bird whose head is faced in the opposite direction of its body. This emphasizes on the fact that even though the bird is advancing, it periodically makes it a point to examine or return to it's past, since this is the only way for one to have a better future. Another example would be Ubuntu. According to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Ubuntu is the essence of being a person. It means that we are people through other people. We cannot be fully human alone. We are made for interdependence and for family. When you have ubuntu, you embrace others; through generosity and compassion.

         In conclusion, though the past is still in our minds when we hear the “N” word, we must come to the realization of the differences between then; slavery years, and now. Not to mention; the word should have never had so much power over us. We need to move past the racism of the past and prosper with the unity of all people. If this continuous way of thinking; holding onto this “N” word as a identifier, then we’ll always still remain locked in “chains” of racism and injustice. Yes, there is the idea of “abolishing” this word, which in return may initiate those steps needed in discontinuing the lingering sense of discrimination towards Blacks, but who’s to say this will contribute to the overall improvement of social inequalities and social views of or for our people? If I’m not correct, there are many other negative and stigmatizing labels or words given to define Blacks: “coon”, “porch monkey”, or “monkey”. If we are in need of abolishing one derogatory word from being used in society, shouldn’t we abolish all words found to be derogatory towards a race?  If so many blacks believe that an outside race is not allowed to use the “N” word, than neither should they. It is time to let go of the word and move on; but never forget about its origin. If so many truly feel that this word needs to be removed from people’s vocabulary; then it has to be done by “voluntary removal”. With voluntary removal of the “N” word from our own individual language and vocabulary; can this be eliminated as well as remove the hypocritical definitions and stereotypes that come with it. This can be done if each and every person refrains from using this word; and then can this truly have a realistic effect. As the great Gandhi once said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world”. We have to lead by example.






Reference Page


 "The Meaning of Our “Sankofa Logo”."Sankofa Achievement Center Inc. N.p., 29 May          2013. Web. 15 Mar. 2014. <>.


"Archbishop Desmond Tutu Explains Ubuntu." Off to See the World. Amkotten, 19                                             July 2012. Web. 15 Mar. 2014.   <                             explains-ubuntu/>.


Monroe, Lisa. "Black and I'm Proud." Social Justice (2011): n. pag.

Devotion Reader. Devotion Media, 16 Jan. 2011. Web. 15 Mar. 2014. <>.

I will be adding alternate views from great students when I have their permission.