What Does “That Word” Mean?

February 7, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

1.  I wonder if hip-hop is taking some of the nastiness and venom out of the word “nigger” (or “nigga”).

I was at a Sweet Sixteen party last weekend in New Rochelle. The kids were mostly White or Hispanic.  Some of them knew “Livin’ La Vida Loca” – I could see them singing along to the music.  They also were singing along at the end of the evening when the DJ, in a patriotic mood I guess, put on “Empire State of Mind.”
You should know I bleed blue, but I ain't a Crip though
I got a gang of niggas walking with my clique, though
I was impressed watching these kids recite by heart the rapid-fire lyrics, and I realized they could do the same for lots of other rap hits. Those songs too have this same taboo word. Yet there they were, these sweet sixteen and fifteen year old girls, rapping along with Jay-Z about their gang of niggas. 

In this context, the word is not the supremely offensive racial epithet;* instead, it suggests affiliation and even affection.  Yes, as Jay Smooth brilliantly explains:
The meaning and impact of our words and the boundaries around them are always determined in part by the relationships involved. . . . Black people . . . have one particular kind of relationship with it. Everybody else has a different relationship with it. . . . We judge [a conversation] differently when there are different relationships involved. [The video is here – and if you are not familiar with Jay Smooth, you should watch this video now, and any of his other videos you can find.]
Relationships to “that word”** have always been different.  For White people.  “Nigger” was a taboo object – exotic, dangerous, and powerful.  But now a generation of White kids has grown up with this additional and more mundane meaning of the word.  Maybe, as this new meaning becomes more widespread, the other, more hateful meanings will ebb.

2.  And maybe not. As I was walking to the subway in Penn Station yesterday, I saw this ad poster on the wall near the Metrocard booth. I immediately noticed the graffiti.



The commuters rushed by not bothering to notice. Even when I stopped and took out my camera, nobody paused or turned to see what I was taking pictures of. What would they have thought if they had noticed?

3. Change in language is slow; change in racial attitudes even slower. It will be interesting to see how these play out in the generations for whom hip hop and its language are just another part of the culture.   Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that a change is gonna come.

A friend went to watch her grandson, age twelve,  in a kids’ hockey tournament in western Massachusetts. The teams were from Vermont and western Connecticutt and Massachusetts.  One of the kids on the team has a Black father and White mother. At the end of the game, as the kids were coming off the ice, one of the kids on the other team called him “nigger.”  Yes, that word, and there was nothing friendly about it.

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*In the classic SNL with Richard Pryor and Chevy Chase, a job interview turns into a tense confrontation as they hurl racial epithets back and forth, the nastiness of the terms steadily increasing – "Junglebunny," "Peckerwood" "Burrhead," "Cracker," etc. until the ultimate:
Interviewer: "Jungle Bunny!"
Mr. Wilson: [ upset ] "Honky!"
Interviewer: "Spade!
Mr. Wilson: [ really upset ] "Honky Honky!"
Interviewer: [ relentless ] "Nigger!"
Mr. Wilson: [ immediate but slower and deliberate ] "Dead honky!"
YouTube has only low-quality versions done with a camcorder pointed at the TV –  this one, for example.

** Unlike Jay-Z, Jay Smooth is reluctant to utter the word “nigger” (or “nigga”) and instead refers only to “that word.” A third Jay (Livingston) is ambivalent. In the title for this post, I cautiously chose “that word.” But the text is different. If you can’t use a word when you are talking about that word, then the terrorists have won.

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