“What’s up, mi nigga?” said a co-worker as I sauntered into work one afternoon. Checking myself mid stride I did a double take; surely I had misheard her. “Whaat?” I asked, studying her features for signs of malice. She grinned broadly. “Whaat?” laughed the store’s black assistant manager, mimicking my accent, more surprised at my reaction than to the word that had provoked it.
Muhammad Ali’s comment about refusing to serve his country in Vietnam because no Vietnamese had ever called him nigger ran through my mind. Was it that time already: we could just fling the word around with abandon? “Cup of tea, nigga?”
Shocked, the first time I had heard the word used casually among Afro Americans when I was down south, by now I was pretty much inured to it. It was in the break room of the international banking company where I worked that a temporary worker peppered her phone conversation with ‘mi nigga this’ and ‘mi nigga that,’ occasionally referring to other people she knew as ‘dis’ or ‘dat nigga.’ Not believing what I was hearing, I looked discreetly around the room, expecting to see my outrage mirrored on the faces of the other, exclusively, black faces present. No one else so much as raised an eyebrow. I attempted to shrug it off; just another in the long line of culture shocks I had endured since my arrival but my view of the girl, an attractive twenty something, was as tainted as if I had seen her pick her nose, examine the contents and sweep them up with her tongue.
Thus I became aware of the trend amongst African Americans to use the word extensively in a bid to reclaim it from the white race, hoping its everyday use would dilute its negative power. The strategy seemed flawed to me but who was I to complain: no one here had called me nigger yet. Not to my face anyway.
I think it was my accent that precluded such an occurrence. One balmy evening, lounging on the porch of an apartment complex in an area of Wesley Chapel, GA, deep in the ‘hood’ I opened my mouth to break one of the ever growing silences between myself and the girl whose apartment it was. Her southern drawl lazily informed me that: “I think of y’all as a normal guy until y’all start to talk.”
I had left a country where nigger and other like minded words: wog, coon, darkie – words I had grown up hearing – had long fallen out of favour with all but the most rabid racists. Weeks before leaving, partaking of an alcoholic beverage or three in a suburban London pub one Saturday night, a black American – a rare sight in that neighbourhood and in London in general, had referred to an absent acquaintance of his as ‘dat nigga.’
The word rang out like a gunshot: no one ran for cover but jaws dropped; heads turned; eyes widened. Locking eyes with the other black faces in the mainly white room (this is London I’m talking about) we held each others gaze as around us embarrassment and indignation reddened the countenances of the other patrons. Conversation resumed after a few seconds, in hushed voices at first, before returning to its previous level. After all, it had been an American who had committed the faux pas, merely serving to confirm that black Americans were no less loud and obnoxious than their white counterparts. (Sorry, but that’s the prevailing view of Americans in my homeland.)
The culprit remained unabashed: “What, you don’t use that word here?” he asked. I hadn’t heard it for years outside of rap music and the movies. No, it’ s an American thing, we Brits were too polite to say.
Back in the present, my colleague, also an immigrant and a more recent entrant to these shores than I, attending high school in Jamaica, Queens, was a Muslim Pakistani girl, whom the racist in me, expected to know better. Granted, that she had meant no offence and I had taken none but I was irritated. I didn’t like the word, didn’t know anyone who used it casually, didn’t use it myself and especially didn’t like it being directed at me, least of all by someone outside my own race.
When I broached her on the subject, she said I shouldn’t be offended: the word wasn’t a slur; it merely meant ‘man.’ Genuinely believing she had no idea of the history or culture of the word I tried to explain. She wouldn’t have it: she had black friends with whom she used it all the time. I tried a different tack: its like someone with whom you’re not familiar calling you by a pet name reserved only for family members and close friends. She gave me the same look the girl had given me on the porch in Wesley Chapel.
Confirmation of the flaw in the strategy of the words regular use eventually dulling it’s sting came for me when the girl annoyed by something or the other that I had done muttered aloud that I was nothing but a nigger.
And therein lies the rub: we can call each other nigger and mi nigga as much as we want and believe that by so doing its power is diminished but when someone from outside your race uses it derogatorily it’s clear that nothing has changed.
Times, though, change and people change with them. When I was growing up the word ‘gay’ meant carefree and happy go lucky, quoted countless times in the reggae songs of my youth. There was even a famous rocksteady group of the era called the ‘Gaylads,’ and it had nothing to do with sexuality. Since appropriated by the homosexual community the word’s origins have largely been forgotten and it now refers exclusively to sexual orientation. Those who think of the word ‘nigga’ as merely a slang term for ‘man’ probably have no idea of the original meaning of the word ‘gay’ and it’s possible that ‘nigga’ will go through a similar metamorphosis.
Until that day though, count me out. Call me: man, mister, mate, bloke, geezer ( which means man in Britain but I have come to learn means old man in the US) just don’t call me that word. I strongly object – though I may be too polite to say so.