Escaping the N word
As the movie theater cleared out, Zaria and I lingered awhile, still grappling with the heavy themes the Joker film presented. The conversation morphed into a debate on a racial issue as a white theater worker hovered around, and announced to the still seated Zaria that they were closing.
“Okay, thank you,” she replied to him. Then, continuing our conversation - “Ma nigga, those are two completely different things!”
“Could you not call me that?” I asked.
“What are you talking about?”
“You called me the n word, I just feel like it’s so unnecessary. You use it so much and I just don’t like being called that,” I said.
“You’ve called me nigga before,” she replied.
“When have I called you nigga?”
I had definitely called her nigga before, though. But I used it very very sparingly. That night as we strolled through the streets of New York, I had inwardly cringed every time she referred to “that nigga”, “this nigga” and “my nigga gotta be tall.” I smiled and laughed like I usually did, after all, this was America.
Something shifted when she called me that though, that one time, after we had been talking about delicate racial issues and this white man was trying to usher us out of the theater. So I asked her to refrain, knowing fully well that with her personality and outlook, this was practically futile.
She implied that I was being hypocritical, and in all honesty, I was. I sang along to lyrics that contained the word. I laughed at shows that tossed the word around. And I used it myself, not frequently, but ever so often, like say, when hanging out with her. The sad reality though, was that the word cracked like a whip through the air every time I heard it. Tolerating it, and using it myself, was a way for me to dull the pain and to pretend like it didn’t matter.
Ever since I migrated to the US roughly four years ago, I realized that there was a starkly different appetite for the word here than there was in my country. When groups of black teenagers tossed the word around on the train, the only thing that lessened my discomfort was the idea that the white people in earshot were rendered uncomfortable and confused by this, but did a great job of acting normal. So much of North America was this constant pantomime of racial dynamics, of power plays, as subtle, unsubstantial, and self-defeating as they seemed.
I determined to understand and identify with the “reclamation” of the word by some within the black community, but today I can finally admit that I have failed. I don’t like it, I have never liked it, and I’m exhausted trying to like it. In my country, we are predominantly black, and so far removed from white racism that we had largely exiled that word from our vocabulary. There was no need for it. It didn’t represent us, and it never had. That being said, I cannot fully claim that no Afro-Trinidadian person ever uses the word, but my point is that it is not the sacred cultural phenomenon that it seems to be here.
What should have been a casual exchange devolved into a full-blown argument between my friend and I, one that threatened the very foundation of our relationship. She had grown up in the hoods of New York, while I had been raised in the suburbs of a Caribbean island. We were both proud of our blackness, but it manifested in different ways.
“You were just mad because the white man was there when I said it. Don’t project your insecurities about your blackness onto me,” she texted the next morning.
Insecurities about my blackness?
What on God’s green earth did that vile repulsive word have to do with my blackness?
The insinuation was disturbing. Mustering all my patience, I texted back:
“No babe honestly. The n word is a thing for me. I respect that black americans wanna use it but you know it’s a whole constant debate within the general black community. So what if it’s ‘cause the white guy was around? I have a right to feel how I feel about this so-called “reclamation” of the word. Insecurities about blackness? I am not a nigga or a nigger. I never was and I never will be and I don’t care what America treats me as or none of that. That does not represent blackness to me, that’s the thing.”
She decided we needed some space. I couldn’t for the life of me understand why she was acting like this word was her birthright. It was an ugly term coined by racist white people that described the state of their own nature way more than it described those they were dehumanizing. More likely than not, the problem was that she had a skewed understanding of the history of the word, and even if I were to explain it to her,years of habit and a cultural relationship with the word might prevent her from reducing its usage.
As far as she knew, however, I was okay with the word. She didn’t know that it was complicated for me; since I couldn’t escape the word, I figured I might as well join the legions of people that were clearly harnessing some sort of power from it. But even when I sang it proudly at the top of my lungs glaring defiantly at a white man in the bar, I didn’t quite feel empowered. These questions are always swirling in my mind:
Why are we the only group reclaiming our racial slur?
Do certain Black Americans genuinely believe that this word is part of their identity?
Is this a major marker of their internalized racial inferiority, or a paradigm shift that I cannot understand because it is an unfamiliar culture?
All things considered, at the very least I can say the situation with Zaria gave me clarity on something that occurred months prior, when I was a member of a women’s arts activism workshop tasked with scripting and performing our own original play. I created a character named Daquan who was a stereotype of an “urban” Black American man. I decided the n word would be part of his slang of choice. The scene with Daquan was “Gym Bros”, about two bros at the gym hitting on a woman in between reps. My scene partner Ashley and I improvized then wrote the scene together. Ashley was white and so was her character Todd, but when Todd entered the imaginary gym and greeted Daquan, Daquan’s response was “Yoooo, wassup ma nigga?” Ashley just went with it, and the other girls laughed their asses off.
Days before the show, however, we were all together discussing the tightening of the scenes, and one of the teaching artists said, “By the way, the Assistant Program Manager said she didn’t like when Daquan addresses Todd with the n word, but it’s you all’s scene, so do what you want.”
“Actually, I don’t like it either,” said one black girl, Lydia.
I was stunned. Lydia hadn’t said anything about it before, why was she bringing it up now? She and I had our differences as well, so I took it personal, and a mini discussion ensued among the black girls in the group about whether or not I should call a white girl “ma nigga” on stage. Interesting concepts emerged (mostly from Lydia), like the idea that this might cause white audience members to feel licensed to use the word, or that it wasn’t an accurate portrayal of how black men interact with white men. I thought the pushback was ridiculous coming from Lydia, who referred to men as “niggas” all the time.
I’d be damned if I ever called my man “my nigga” instead of boyfriend or husband. Daquan and his slang was simply a character for me, I thought I was staying true to character, and making the scene as funny as possible. Plus, it was monumental that a black person would call a white person the n word on stage.
In retrospect, I didn’t consider the fact that our use of and feelings toward the n word are highly contextual, and inexplicably complex. I had developed a bond with Ashley over the months, and perhaps that made me comfortable enough to script such a stunt. I was glad she knew not to be upset by this, but I didn’t think about how it might land on the black audience members. The brand of black man I’d created Daquan to be would most definitely use the n word with a white person, I had witnessed it myself. But was there some sort of rule I was unaware of, that this was typically done antagonistically, and never casually, much less as a term of endearment?
I have an anti-racist white friend who is close to me, but would I ever call her “ma nigga”, or allow her to say the word? Definitely not. So it wasn’t all that strange that Lydia didn’t like the idea. In the end, I decided to respect her wishes not to do it. Besides, I had asked her myself to be the sassy woman in the scene that the gym bros would get rejected by, so I appeased her out of respect, not out of understanding.
I only begin to understand Lydia’s selective offense over the word when confronted with my own selective offense over the word, yet I expected that Zaria would just get it. The thing is, how we internalize, interpret and cope with the trauma of the most offensive word in the English language, is multidimensional, and often seemingly illogical. It lives and breathes among us as though it too, were a citizen of the United States. This is where it was born and bred, and this is where it represents a power dynamic and impact that can only be clarified through context.
Personally, I wish the word would vanish into thin air forever. In the interim, I will struggle with the reality of having to live with it, hypocritically or otherwise. One thing’s for sure, once you’re on US shores, it is impossible to escape.