Last week on black-ish, a performance of Kanye West’s “Golddigger” by youngest son “Jack” (Miles Brown) during a school talent show launched an episode-long discussion, debate, and deconstruction of the word “nigga” and if (and when) it’s appropriate to use. I had no idea there were so many rules! I always just assumed “Black person using nigga” = “cool.” “Anyone who’s not a Black person using nigga” = “uncool.”
Oh, definitely. Nigga is complicated, man. Let me put this way: You know how anyone attempting to drive needs to get a permit, take a written test, and then take a driving test before they’re allowed on the street? N-word use and usage should come with a syllabus, a practicum, a curriculum, a lecture from a Toni Morrison hologram and, if they pass that point, a field exam where they’re dropped on U Street in Washington, D.C. for a week.
Well, is there a Cliffnotes version of this? A quick set of rules to abide by if you want to say this word but can’t afford to take this course?
Well, the first and most important rule is that you must be Black.
Even if someone takes this curriculum? The person still must be Black? Why?
Liability issues. I can’t be responsible for what happens to you if you’re not, in fact, Black and you say the word around people who are, in fact, Black. You can chance it, but my insurance just won’t cover you. And neither will yours. Nationwide will not be on your side.
Okay, okay, okay. I get it. Non-black people should probably just not say it at all.
Are there any rules that Black people need to know about?
Really? This is such an odd concept to me. As I said earlier, I assumed “You must be Black” was really the only rule. But now you’re saying Black people have use and usage rules too?
Well, you have to realize that not all Black people feel the same way about the word. Some don’t use it at all. And some are very offended when any Black people use it at all. They’re not going to say it, they don’t want to hear you say it, and they’ll definitely feel a certain way if you say it around them.
Basically, if you use it recklessly around the wrong Black person, you might get shanked.
So that’s the first rule?
Yes. Only use it around people who understand, and aren’t offended by, the use and usage of nigga. If there’s anyone within earshot who might be uncomfortable with it — and this includes both non-Black people and other Black people — you probably shouldn’t use it as freely. Basically, treat it like a profanity.
You wouldn’t — well, I hope you wouldn’t — say “f*ck this” and “bitch that” all willy-nilly around kids, co-workers, and your fiancée’s grandparents. Especially, if those grandparents carry semiautomatic weapons. Treat the n-word the same way.
Any other rules?
Well, this is where it gets tricky. I don’t use nigga often, but I do use it. I probably write it more often than I say it. Many of my close friends (my wife included) use it too, so I’m obviously not offended by it. But, you know what might offend me? If a guy I’d never met before just came up to me like “What’s up, nigga?”
Cause I don’t know that nigga.
Yes. It is a word of familiarity. You use it after you’ve already established a relationship with someone. You do not use it as an introduction. “What up, my niggas?” only works if you’re actually talking to your established niggas, not your breakout session group at a National Society of Black Engineers
You were right. This is complicated.
I know. It is. It’s the English language’s most complicated word. But savvy veteran n-word users understand the rules governing its use. It’s intuitive.
So, to summarize, don’t use it unless you’re 1) Black, 2) addressing other Black people, 3) addressing other Black people you know are fine with the word?
Well, after you complete your nigga coursework, there’s graduate level courses where you’ll learn how to use the term as a pronoun, verb, adverb, adjective, exclamation, and salutation.
That sounds like fun.
Oh, it definitely is.