You can’t say “nigger.”

Many of you have just shifted in your seats at the sight of this title. Go on and take a second to unpucker your assholes; this isn’t going to get any less uncomfortable. Alternatively, you may choose to abort this edition of Truth in Jest. I’ll wait… They gone? Ok, cool. It’s 2016; why am I still being oppressed by the word “nigger?” I should acknowledge that today’s brand of oppression has nothing on yesteryear’s; the enslavement, torture, rape, murder, exploitation, etc. of my ancestors is unimaginable to me. However, days of the word “nigger” as a weapon are over, or at least they should be: If the white gentleman sitting next to me on this plane called me a nigger right now for no reason I’d honestly just feel bad for him, as I consider modern-day racism a form of mental illness. The degree of systematic oppression of even my own parents is but a memory. Even the societal inequities of today, while very real, are not the plights of which I speak. I just like to use the word “nigga” and y’all are making it very uncomfortable for me.

I take a very liberal stance on profanity in general. As a lover of language and words I typically assume the perspective which allows me to use as many as I please – it just makes writing more enjoyable and conversation more colorful. Look, I say it. Frequently really. When I’m with my family and black friends (and Walter) we just fire them off with impunity, like the incidental spittle from a word with a hard “p” sound. It’s as seamless as any generic pronoun I use, when in the right company. But the rest of y’all are really, passively busting my balls about it.

When I catch myself suppressing a casual “nigga” my soul cries a little bit and I feel ingenuine – disappointed even. Especially when I use the phrase “the ‘n’ word” – I feel like half of the folks listening know I’m betraying who I am while the other half is finding the confirmation they were looking for: that I shouldn’t be saying it either. I feel like a white guy avoiding saying a black guy thing around white guys that white guys shouldn’t say around blacks or whites. That is entirely too much thought to be putting into that decision! I’m supposed to be this unapologetic champion of verbal diversity but when faced with this one particular slur I sink in my seat like I’m afflicted with a pre-teen classroom boner. I take some (though only a small amount of) solace in the fact that it isn’t really my fault. IT’S YOURS. Yes, YOU – avoiding eye contact with me and looking around for comfort from similarly squirmy listeners. Yes, YOU – reminding me what “our people” have gone through behind that word. YOU TOO – white friends asking me why I can say it and you can’t. And not to forget YOU – self-muting your volume during perilous moments in 50 Cent songs, AND my people surveying the crowd during perilous moments in 50 Cent songs to catch you in the act.

And it’s definitely not my fault that white folks can’t say it. Y’all just need to toughen up and let the guns blaze; cross your fingers and pray that situational/conversational context is on your side. Just don’t look to me during the fallout – can’t help you, B. What’s more embarrassing for me is that I’m probably more uncomfortable saying it in front of white folks than they are hearing me say it. ME… uncomfortable saying “nigga” around white folks… TF? It’s like that feeling when you cuss for the first time in front of your mother and you don’t know what the reaction will be – that queasy anticipation.

Y’all really don’t know how big of an ask it is when you go to your black friend and say “we cool, right? I can say it around you.. You know I don’t mean any offense.” Because by granting that permission I now have to vouch for you around others – even folks I don’t know. If you, as a non-black, have ever been in a situation where you let a “nigga” slip in conversation, prompting an unknown, black, bystander to ask your black comrade, “This ya mans?”, know that you almost got jumped and your black friend saved you. But that’s too much to ask of anyone and just adds to the gravity of my plight. Again, it’s both sides of that scenario that offend me – both sides contributing to the stigma which prevents me from casually sliding a buttery n-bomb across the card table like the trump ace.

Quick story: I was recently at a Karaoke birthday party at Yakitori Boy in Chinatown. ‘Big Poppa’ by Biggie queued up, blackness was the striking minority and I was all set to be very uncomfortable during that perilous moment where everyone would surely panic, shift in their seats, look around for approval and giggle awkwardly. Then, like a heroine called to her beacon, Karaoke Gwen swoops in with an unflinchingly cool: “If you don’t know, now you know, nigga.” It’s like the lyrics were telling her own story: ‘If you didn’t know, I’m a real one and I don’t give a fuck’ – and she faded into the darkness as mysteriously as she had appeared. Her heroic exploits emboldened me to not only sing karaoke (which I never do) but also fire off “niggas” like Lennox guarding his castle in the movie ‘Belly’. Best part is, I don’t even know that she was black. I thought I saw some blackness in there but she was very light-skinned and my lady thought Asian. She was probably some magical mix and that’s the point. It doesn’t matter.

It’s all context. The word is just letters and sounds – it’s the vitriol assigned to it that is offensive, whether historically or present-day. I could call someone something as benign as “pencil” with enough stank on it to strike a nerve. In most situations you can determine intent and if you can’t, just be a human and have a conversation. We can’t keep hiding from this – I’ve missed out on way too many opportunities for awesome jokes already.

This is not intended to be a guideline or set of rules. In fact, I really want the opposite of that. I want to live in a society where offensive remarks are indisputable – where I don’t have to wonder “what do you mean by that?” If you hate my blackness, there need not be any ambiguity about it, my nigga. Where I’m free to have discourse with my nigga in earshot of the easily offended or righteous and the only thought they might have would be “…well, that must be his nigga.” Where I’m singing along to that new Dave East and my homegirl Emily goes bar for bar without skipping a syllable. We’re not there yet – perhaps not close. But one day, my nigga… One day.

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