More Shades of (Black, White, and) Grey

Quick, everyone – if someone asked you what the most offensive word in the English language was, what word would you guess? I would venture to guess that it wouldn’t necessarily be the same word for everyone, but I would bet that most of us agree that there’s one word that it’s safer to never say. Yeah, we’re talking about THAT word; a word that some of my white friends could never dream of saying.

I’m a young African-American male that grew up in a predominantly low-income African-American community. I’ve never tried to hide or run from that, but I have also been blessed to have grown up going to private schools and college in predominantly-Caucasian communities. I don’t hide from that either.

Often, as a young black male, I’ve often found myself right at the intersection of these dissimilar environments. Young black kids often crack me up when they give me grief for being “so white” because I don’t always dress like them or I try to speak in a more articulate manner. On the other hand, there have been plenty of times throughout high school and college where it has delighted some of my white friends to have me around as the self-appointed token black kid. A little dancing here, a few slang words there, and everything’s light and breezy. Clearly, I have no problem mixing racial relations; it’s all in good fun for me (To wit, for a long time, I jokingly carried an index card with “RACE” written on it as a physical manifestation of something that I, ironically, hate to ever play in an actual discussion).

Here’s the point though: even I find myself offended at the frivolity with which the word “nigger” is used nowadays. On TV, in music, or in everyday conversation, it’s everywhere. It’s a word that we should ALL work to expunge from our vocabulary, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that it’s obviously more bothersome to me, an African-American male, when a Caucasian person uses it like so

Image from

Image from

Surprisingly, it’s the flippant, non-accusatory usage of it that seems to bother me the most. Most of the white people with whom I’ve come in contact have the good taste to not use it around me so I don’t have a wealth of experience in this area, but I’d honestly probably feel less offended if someone were to just shout it at me. The reasoning behind this is inexplicably simple to me – it almost feels like mockery to hear a Caucasian person take a word that has been flipped by black people from an awful thing to something of a term of endearment and then try to use jokingly for themselves. IN NO WAY is it fair for me to tell someone what they can or can not say, but I think it’s fair that it bothers me as an African-American male to hear that word used by someone who isn’t African-American. It’s as if some people feel that there’s a certain quota, be it black friends or time spent around black people that grants them a “hood pass,” as it were, which can be used to speak/act/dress the way that the stereotypical black person would. Or maybe they do it because they just don’t care. But either way, it’s a shameful practice. I’m a proud black man, but I’m even prouder to say that I AM NOT the caricature of a black man that is often depicted on TV or in the minds of close-minded people.

As I had it explained to me at a young age, that word basically means “a black person that causes trouble.” Obviously when a word is used to disparage an entire race for a long time, the connotations of said word can be much worse, but either way, it is not a term with which I’d like to identify in any way. That being said, black people can not be faulted for trying to reclaim something that was (and can still be) so hurtful and demeaning in an effort to draw closer to one another. Of course, every time that word is used isn’t always in a positive way, but ultimately, it makes sense why it has become such a ubiquitous term in the African-American community. And to be fair, this phenomenon also applies to other minorities and women, especially. It is certainly valid to argue that terms like “slut” and “bitch” do the same thing to women that “nigger” does to African-Americans. Those are fair points.

The fact of the matter is that while all African-Americans can not speak to a personal feeling of what slavery was like, most of us can speak to a tangible feeling of discrimination in one way or another. For some of us, it’s an unspoken evil with which we’ve learned to live and get around, while some are a little more vocal about it. But whatever the case, it’s a cross that we (or any minority, really) have to bear everyday. At the end of the day, the word “nigger” can still feasibly be used to subjugate black people; THAT’s what I believe drives our desire to reclaim and repurpose that word. Make no mistake about it – regardless of who uses it, the word in and of itself is ugly; a tasteless and insensitive throwback to a far more sensitive time, one that we all should work to get past but not disregard. However, for this particular word, only one race was (read: is) subjected to its power as a pejorative meant to belittle and enslave. To use it at all is lazy and unoriginal. To not be apart of the race but use it casually is, at best, reckless, and at worst, insensitive and hateful.


  1. Henry aka Stephen says:

    Marcus, GREAT POST!! I could talk about this topic for days. I love having this conversation with people, I think the more we talk about the word and its use the more we can grow to understand it. You made some great points in your post. For a long time, I’ve been trying to find the words to make some of the same points you made. That being said…..I have a different view of the word, and because of that I don’t believe the word is always ugly and tasteless. I do agree that it’s lazy, as most derogatory words tend to be. However, I feel that there is a time and place for lazy grammar. (I’m sure we disagree about that)…To me, it’s a word that can stir up a multitude of emotions, similar to the word “fuck”……I began to type an essay of sorts on the various uses of “nigga”, along with why I feel like the word has been groomed into a certain place in the English language. I decided against that, because of how cliche it sounded; also because I don’t like typing that much. Soooooo, I feel like this is a discussion we should definitely have over a beer sometime or another, my treat!

  2. Carina Browder says:

    I think that those who have never had the word (with the “hard R” as some have began to say) used against them do not understand the gravity of this situation. Crying that it’s “just a word!!!11” is harmful and derailing, and does not account for the history and the years of racial oppression and struggle behind the n-word.
    Wonderful post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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