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by Pascale Florestal
What does it mean to change the meaning of a word that once provoked violence to a word of brotherhood and friendship? A word that is equated to inferiority and property is now found in almost every hip-hop and rap song. Even on the T, you’ll hear it exchanged by young people of color and many times white people, saying it as if that word never held a history of disadvantages and death.
For over two hundred years, this word was used by white men and women to remind people of color their place in this world; the bottom. This word was weaponized from slavery to the civil rights movement, and still today as a mind game so successful that people of color began to believe this inferiority to be true. Social scientists call this “internalized oppression,” which is the psychological trauma that ensues when a person from a stigmatized group believes those negative stigmas. This internalized oppression not only affected the psyche of black men and women but also impacted the way the world treated them. This weaponizing of the N-word created the institutionalized racism we see today, the inaccessibility to; affordable housing, quality education, jobs, the ability to vote, and representation in the media. This word not only changed the meaning of being of color but established the need to justify the violence against black and brown bodies.
Today that meaning has changed, for some. The popularity of hip-hop and rap in the late 1980s to the early 1990s introduced a new use of the N-word. It no longer was a word of inferiority but a word of brotherhood and commonality, an opportunity to connect on a struggle only a select group could understand. There is a distinct difference in the way the N-word is said today; “Nigga” and “Nigger”, though basically the same word carries vastly different meanings. Some people claim that using the term with the ending “er” implies its long history of racism and discrimination established during slavery. Others say that “nigga” reclaims the word from its sordid history and turns it into a term of endearment but only to be used by black people.
But what happens when that word becomes so mainstream that people who are not black use it? Maybe it’s in a song or a comedy sketch they love. Does that mean anyone can say it?
It’s been a large controversy in the last decade, with celebrities and scholars discussing who can and cannot use the word. Celebrities have been called out for using the word as they are not of color and their image has been tarnished for doing so. Take for example, Gina Rodriguez, star of Jane The Virgin. She was recently under fire on social media for posting a video of herself singing along to the Fugees song “Ready or Not” and saying the N-word. After an immediate backlash from social media she deleted the video and posted an apology on instagram. Many people thought the apology was not enough as some say it implied she did not truly understand what she did wrong and why she shouldn’t say the N-word. What made this issue complex was its resurfaced the constant question; who can and can’t say it? This debate is not the first of its kind, Jennifer Lopez said the N-word in her 2001 hit song “I’m Real” with Ja Rule and faced a similar backlash. Things become even more complicated when we take into consideration artists who may present as white but are Afro-Latinx, creating a complex issue of policing the use of this word.
It is important to remember the complicated history that birthed the word into existence. It makes us all wonder if reclaiming a word with such volatile history can truly be accomplished. The constant debate around reclaiming the N-word suggests that we will always have complicated relationships with slurs no matter if they are reclaimed or not.
As audiences watch BLKS and other work that includes characters who are reclaiming this word, it is necessary for us to remember the context. This word does not belong to everyone, and we all need to respect its history and deeper meaning.
This article was originally written to support SpeakEasy’s January 2020 production of Pass Over by Antoinette Nwandu. Pascale Florestal is a director, dramaturg, educator, and the Education Director of Front Porch Arts Collective.