In light of the recent Dr. Laura Shlessinger controversy, it is a good time to address the effect of “nigger” in 21st century American culture. This article, however, is not about that particular controversy; there are already enough blogs and news outlets discussing Dr. Laura.The topic examined here is the mysterious power that nigger holds in a country that is struggling to move beyond racism and within the ethnic group that the word most often refers to.
Also, since nigger has probably been discussed, researched and written about more than any other word in American history, except for love, I will forgo etymological exegesis of the word and instead I recommend that readers explore its storied history for themselves.
So, what does nigger mean, and why is it so controversial? The Oxford English Dictionary classifies “nigger” as an offensive noun and defines it as “a contemptuous term for a black or dark-skinned person.”
This dictionary acknowledges that nigger is also used as a term of endearment and in a joking matter by black people.
It is this second usage that creates the controversy because it is a usage usually reserved exclusively for blacks and one in which the entire black community has not yet come to terms with. When nigger is used by non-blacks, it is received in its derogatory sense, whether the speaker intended it or not, and for some blacks, it is always derogatory, regardless of the speaker’s ethnicity.
This conflict over nigger within the black community is often directed at the word itself and usually ends in one of two conclusions: the word shouldn’t be used at all or the word’s usage should be permitted to people of all races. Unfortunately, the conflict rarely addresses the real issue that runs parallel with the nigger controversy: the identity crisis of blacks in America. For as long as nigger has been a staple in America, black people have been trying to figure out their place in American culture and as citizens.
This identity crisis is displayed best by the various titles used to describe black Americans. Since the 1800s, black Americans have evolved in title from colored, Negro, Afro-American, and black into the modern African American. Interestingly enough, nigger is the only title that has endured throughout this evolution and has stubbornly clung to the black community no matter how hard some have tried to remove it.
So, as ironic as it may seem, nigger appears to be the most accurate titular representation of the Black community’s experience in America. I am not suggesting that this is either positive or negative; I am only stating that this is the reality of the situation and it will continue to be as long as the black community’s identity crisis persists.
Since I don’t want to end this article with a problem, I will offer a potential solution to the identity crisis I presented. The first step in resolving this crisis is to expand the understanding of the term “black community.” The idea that an ethnic group consisting of approximately 41 million people spread across a country of over 300 million citizens has a single identity is absurd. Being black in America today allows for just as many, if not more, variable experiences as being white in America.
The problem that blacks have with getting a particular title to stick and nigger to dissolve is that, outside of genealogical racial identity, it is impractical to label oneself as anything but American.
The next step for resolution is diversifying the presentation and public perception of black Americans; it must be understood, both nationally and globally, that Black Americans are more diverse than the sum total of black athletes and entertainers.
Thus, Soledad O’Brian’s documentary, Black in America, was a step in the right direction that should be expanded upon.
In conclusion, my hope is that the next evolution in the Black community will be from African Americans to simply Americans and the next article I write titled “Wassup, my nigga(er)!” will be an anthropological look into the past.
Jonathan Tatum is a GSU alumnus who majored in English from Opelousas.