The Dirty, Six-Letter Word That Starts With “N.”

18 Aug

Unless, it’s shortened to five then it’s okay. Sort of.

Yes, today’s Wildcard Wednesday deals with the “N” word. I’d be remiss if I didn’t say something about the awkward situations that are inevitably rising with the increasing commercialization of hip-hop and the sensationalization of  an “urban” (read black if you like) culture.

A little background. A white teacher reprimanding a black student uses “nigga” to relate to him and get him to behave. A white, popular, talk radio personality gets into a heated debate and uses “nigga” not once, but several times on the air. Local copywriter has awkward conversation at gym with a white patron while watching a news story concerning previously mentioned radio personality.

Now, you’re probably wondering, “Where is Ty going with this?” Well, I’m of two minds. First, to my white brethren and sisteren(?): you can not under any circumstance use the “N” word without expecting repercussion. Period. Here’s why: it’s our word. I know you’ve heard that a million times and maybe some of you don’t understand, so let me break it down for you.

Back in undergrad, I majored in communication and in my interpersonal comm. class I learned about a concept called in-group/out-group communication. Here’s the long and short. The rules of communication and sometimes the very meanings of words are different depending on where you are communicating (in or out of a group), with whom you are communicating (members or non-members), and to what group(s) that you belong.

As everyone knows, the “N” word was used by folks in power to denigrate, belittle, frighten and subjugate people of African descent for a very long time in this country. And, it just so happens, those in power were fair skinned. Somewhere along the way, African-Americans changed the meaning of this world for themselves, thereby defusing the fear and replacing the stigma it held for them. They took the fear away by changing the meaning to a fellow brother or sister who struggled with them and had their backs.

Now, when an African-American says the “N” word, other African-Americans automatically understand that there is little to fear (there are exceptions and I will get to that later). However, when a Caucasian say the “N” word, the context is fuzzy. We don’t know if you’re speaking from a place of hate, which is what we’ve come to expect when you use the word, or if you’re using it like we use it. Because of your position on the outside of our group, we automatically assume that your definition is not the same as ours no matter how hard you try to explain otherwise.

And the theory doesn’t just apply to blacks. It’s universal. Take GLBT folk for instance. If a straight person walked up to a group and said the “F” or “D” word, you better believe there would be repercussions (especially since most gay guys and lesbians are buff as hell). Same with Asians (“C” and “G” word), Jews (“K” word), Hispanic (“S” word), etc.

Now, here comes mind #2. I think the commercialization of hip-hop and consequently, the commercialization of the “N” word, has muddied the waters. Think back to when hip-hop was predominantly listened to by black folk. We could use the “N” word all we wanted to and it was fine, because nobody was listening. Now, every race on this planet is listening to us rap “nigga this” and “nigga that” (and because there’s a mean hook to it, everyone wants to sing along). Everyone is picking up what we’re putting down. “Urban” culture is becoming mainstream and everyone is feeling like they belong to the group. Result: folks are starting to take a few liberties.

Things get more complicated when you consider the fact that in some rap lyrics, the “N” word is actually being used like it was back then: to denigrate, belittle, subjugate, and frighten a race. Only this time, the speaker is a little bit darker.

So, what do we do? Unfortunately, there is no easy answer. The Dr. Laura Schlessingers and Paul Dawsons of the world punished for not following the rules will continue to exist until we get to a place where we all agree and understand that the “N” word holds no dangerous implications. Until then we’re stuck navigating the complicated waters of communication. Here are a few tips that may help:

1. When you want to use in-group terminology and you’re not part of the group, ask permission first. Don’t just blurt it out and expect the group to automatically understand that you meant it this way and not that way.

2. Clarify. Clarify. Clarify. After you’ve asked permission, periodically reiterate that when you say this you mean this. People forget and sometimes you have to remind them. Also, it reinforces the group’s confidence in your use of the in-group term.

3. Eventually, when you interact with the same people from a select group long enough, you will eventually be recognized as one of them. When that happens, you can feel comfortable using in-group terminology without the need to explain yourself.

4. But, always remember that when you encounter new members of the same group, the process becomes necessary again. They don’t know you from Adam and what might be cool with your regular group might not fly with them.

1 Comment

Posted by on August 18, 2010 in Uncategorized


One response to “The Dirty, Six-Letter Word That Starts With “N.”

  1. Dominique

    August 18, 2010 at 7:11 pm

    One way I like to explain it is like this. Let’s use the word “baby”. If you are talking to a female and say baby, how would they take it? It would be different depending on who you are. If you are an old lady, it’s just the same as sweetie pie or honey, etc. If you’re the boyfriend or husband, it’s a term of endearment. If you are some random guy I just met, it could be a little awkward, especially depending on your tone. It could either be taken as nothing but innocent flirting or it could be sexual harrassment.

    I notice explaining that type of thing to people with words that we can all agree are pretty innocent, ppl seem to get it 🙂


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