Published: April 14, 2007
Golden Gate [X]press

By Christine Joy Ferrer

Jonathan Smothers, a black, multiracial student at SF State, has grown accustomed to using the word “nigga” as slang. Yet, he admitted he is ashamed of it.

The word, he said, has embedded itself within his conversational language among friends so much that he finds it hard to shake from his vocabulary.

“I use it and then I think ‘Oh damn, someone might have heard me,’” said the 22-year-old communications major, who’s black, Mexican, Hawaiian, Apache, Filipino and Creole. “It’s beyond me why I’ve allowed this nigga phenomenon to be in my life… when it’s been used to harm so many people.”

In light of the recent disparaging remarks made by celebrities and others and the recent symbolic banning of the N-word in New York City, the usage of its modern-day reference as ‘nigga’ continues to develope into an urban culture phenomenon that has sparked much controversy.

While some see it as just a word, others view it as a reflection of societal inequalities that have been neglected for centuries.

The word “nigga” is a term that many black Americans –– and others who identify with the urban, afro-centric culture –– have attempted to redeem, and is now used in casual jest, slang and talk, according to SF State students.

“Every day I try to use it less and less. But it’s my human response to the negative establishment of the n-word,” said Smothers. “We’ll remain stuck in this self-destructive ghetto mindset that we can never get out of… or fight the oppression of it if we keep using the word.”

According to SF State Africana studies professor Antwi Akom, the use of the n-word has been used in a variety of different ways throughout history, by a variety of different people, from various racial-ethnic regional, generational and socioeconomic positions.

“[It was used] to connote anger-hatred-white supremacy, as well as in recent history as a term of endearment for some people in heterogeneous communities of color,” Akom said via e-mail.

The word is used as a form of empowerment for some blacks, said students. However, Jamaican and Irish microbiology student Macka Harper, 25, believes using it to empower oneself is a more passive-aggressive way of fighting the word instead of confronting society and saying that black people do have a problem with it.

“It’s really about [blacks] not trying to get hurt so [we] say it’s OK to use if we can own it,” said Harper, who refuses to use the word. “Women can’t own ‘bitch.’”

People, especially youth and those who aren’t black, can be oblivious to how hurtful the word is, said speech and communications professor Joe Tuman. When people use the word casually, it takes the word out of the context that has historically occupied, oppressed and marginalized people.

“If you call them on it, they say ‘I didn’t say ‘nigger’ but ‘nigga,’” said Tuman.

One student, who grew up within the black communities of Oakland and Berkley, said her environment was readily acceptant of the racial slang.

“People called me ‘nigga’ so I felt like I could call other people that too,” said Jessica Hammond, 23, who is white.

Students who hold a deeper interpretation of why it’s being used in mainstream rap and hip hop said that the media has exploited derogatory slang and coined it beneath the umbrella of hip-hop culture.

“It sprung from owning the word, instead of letting the white man capitalize… now that’s exactly how they want it. Not the black rappers, but the people who are putting up the money to produce it,” explained Hammond, an economics and political science major, who now replaces the word “nigga” with “dude.”

“It’s perpetuating the cycle, keeping [blacks] at that same mentality that was projected upon them,” she added.

This March, New York City symbolically banned the derogatory racial slur that prompted a spate of similar proposals in half a dozen local governments across four states.

Some SF State students agreed with this move.

“People know exactly what it means and they still chose to use it. We need to use force,” said Harper.

Although the ban is more symbolic than anything, the gesture is important because there is a power to language that is often taken for granted, explained Akom.

“Language is not neutral. It is political and it can be used to heal, harm or spiritually transform a social situation,” he said.

Tuman noted that the closest thing we have to date that allows the banning of words is the FCC rules that limit what broadcasters say when children are in the audience, which is based on obscenity and indecency that’s not protected by the First Amendment.

“Categorical exceptions can be made to the amendment, which is regulated locally, but racial epithets, insults, are not considered categorical exceptions,” he pointed out.

Even if the word’s usage is regulated, it doesn’t mean society’s mindset about the word will change, some students and professors argued.

“People don’t generally talk about why this word is used. Some just aren’t around it. Others have no knowledge about the socio-political state of America,” explained Hammond.

The history of race in America, a complex history imbued with power and privilege, has led Akom to ask why the politicians and the media are focusing on this particular issue now.

“Why are we not focusing on gender inequality, educational inequality, healthcare inequality, environmental inequality, homelessness, joblessness, differences in who has access to becoming a United States citizen?” he asked. “Why shouldn’t our politicians focus on these issues and the relationship between language and power?”

These students and professors called for other solutions besides banning.

“It should start from grassroots to say the least, from the community, to call for and perpetuate more open and social dialogue about the word in schools, on TV, in music,” said Smothers.

“If you are going to start banning things, start banning institutional inequality… bans that have a real connection towards accessing institutional resources and privileges that have been historically denied,” said Akom.

Adam Johnson, 25, a black liberal studies graduate student, said the bigger problem doesn’t lie in the word itself, but is due to a whole slew of factors that have contributed to its mainstream cultural tolerance.

“It’s not just institutionalized racism, it’s all forms of racism, but the mainstream media hasn’t helped… black people, white people, peoples’ concept of concepts, stereotypes, images that portray various racial groups,” he said.

Hammond remembered the moment her attitude about the casual use of the word changed, when her black girlfriend, a close friend since high school, confronted her.

“[She] said to me, ‘Can you please stop using that word?’ It shocked me… made me think of something I’d never really thought about before: Why was I even using nigga in the first place?” she said. “You have to be on a conscious level, if you’re gonna take that step to make a change and you must also be confident enough to do it.”