February 3, 2004

Does the N-word stand for Never?
By Canyon Cody
Published in The Heights

"I hate niggers."

The president of the University of Alabama's NAACP had to scrub those words off the organization's office just three weeks ago, proving that racism is still a very real part of America today.

"I love niggas! I love niggas, cuz niggas are me!" A group of white teenagers sing these words along with 50 Cent's rap from "Realest Niggas," proving that racism in America is a more complicated issue than it has ever been.

In the OJ Simpson case, prosecuting attorney Christopher Darden argued that the N-word, as he referred to it, is the "filthiest, dirtiest, nastiest word in the English language."

It is one of the very last truly taboo words in the contemporary culture. Most major newspapers refuse to publish the word, even when reporting legitimate news issues, preferring instead to write "n-," unless the word is in a direct quotation. Uttering its two syllables can cause severe ramifications, even if the speaker does not intend to be racist.

In fact, problems can arise even if the speaker is denouncing racism, as happened to a white employee at the University of Virginia, who was recently criticized by the school's president for a comment he made to coworkers regarding the name of the Washington Redskins. He said, "It is as derogatory to Indians as having a team called Niggers would be to blacks."

In a similar situation, David Howard, the white director of a Washington DC municipal agency, was forced to resign after he warned his staff that he would have to be "niggardly" with funds. An uproar followed that resulted in Howard's resignation, despite the fact that "niggardly" has no etymological relation to the racial epithet.

Experiences like these have taught white America that the N-word stands for "Never." Among many African-Americans, on the other hand, the word has become part of everyday conversation as a result of its proliferation in hip-hop.

In 1940, Langston Hughes wrote, "The word nigger to colored people of high and low degree is like a red rag to a bull. Used rightly or wrongly, ironically or seriously, of necessity for the sake of realism, or impishly for the sake of comedy, it doesn't matter."

To an extent, in 2003, this was no longer true. When Chris Rock can joke, "I love black people, but I hate niggers," and win an Emmy for his performance, clearly things have changed.

In the top-selling album of 2003, Get Rich or Die Tryin', 50 Cent raps "nigga" 131 times.

Though most hip-hop albums are recorded by black artists, the majority are purchased by white teenagers.

Ice Cube said, "When we call each other 'nigga,' it means no harm. But if a white person uses it, it's something different, it's a racist word." Many disagree with what they view as a racist double standard that allows some people to use the word, while prohibiting others.

In an interview with The Heights, John Kanka, news editor for The Observer, said, "You really shouldn't have some people use it and other people not use it because how are these kids supposed to figure out who is allowed to say it, and who is not allowed.

"If something is okay for some people to say, then it seems like it should be okay for everyone else to say," he said.

Justin McLean, president of the Boston College chapter of the NAACP, refuses to recognize this as a legitimate argument and feels that it is nothing more than an excuse to ignore the real issue of racism in America.

"The right-wing argues that the battle for equality is over and that since we're all equal now, then it's unfair that whites can't say nigga," McLean said.

"What they are actually doing is simply hiding behind the mask of equality and perpetuating false notions of victimization, rather than coming out with their true intention, which is to further their own notions of white privilege."

McLean said that he hears the word used at Boston College on a daily basis among blacks, a trend that Donald Brown, director of BC AHANA Student Programs, disparages.

Brown said, "For me, and for everyone else that grew up during the '60's, the word 'nigga' will never be a term of endearment, because when I heard 'nigger,' there was usually a cross burning somewhere nearby."

Brown disagrees with the distinction that many rappers make based on the spelling of the N-word, as articulated by 2Pac: "Niggers was the ones on the rope hanging out on the field. Niggas is the ones with gold ropes hanging out at clubs."

In fact, many in the hip-hop community argue that the definition of the N-word has evolved for the better as a result.

Rapper Mos Def says, "It's an act of empowerment. When we call each other 'nigga,' we take a word that has been historically used by whites to degrade and oppress us, a word that has so many negative connotations, and turn it into something beautiful, something we can call our own"

Last year, Harvard professor Randall Kennedy's book Nigger explored the tragic history and enduring legacy of racism in American as embodied by six letters.

He wrote, "I think we should take comfort from the idea that a word that has miserable, terrible, hurtful roots can be appropriated by folks and made into something entirely different, including an anti-racist word, including a term of endearment."

"There is much to be gained by allowing people of all backgrounds to yank nigger away from white supremacists to subvert its ugliest denotation, and to convert the N-word from a negative into a positive appellation," he continued.

When Dr. Dre calls Eminem his "nigga" in "What's The Difference" it demonstrates the difficulty of defining such an ambiguous word.

As a result, much of the difficulty of dealing with the N-word comes from its protean quality: historically the word means too many things and yet in much of hip-hop it means nothing at all.

Kennedy concludes his book by asking, "Can a relationship between a black person and a white one be such that the white person should properly feel authorized, at least within the confines of that relationship, to use the N-word? For me the answer is yes."

As for now, most leaders in the black community disagree. Burnell E. Holland III, president of BC AHANA Leadership Council, states simply: "There's no way that a white person can ever say 'nigga' and not offend a black person, no matter what his intention is. There is just too much painful history in that word."

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