Being a Nigger is Not Cool
A racist cartoon from a Ku Klux Klan Web Site that liberally uses the word nigger.

Being a Nigger is Not Cool


You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger -James Baldwin.

By Aretha Frison
more from author >>
First published: January 16, 2006


When I decided to live in Africa, I believed that I was coming to a place where I could finally be free of my abilities, persona and potential being determined by the color of my skin. Yes, maybe I was a little naive to believe that, but it was just something I so wanted to believe and experience. I wanted to truly consider that there is a place in this world where racism didnt exist, and what better place than to find this was in the motherland.

After the South African apartheid I thought that race matters were stable and equality was mainstreamed there and throughout the continent. But, the past conflicts of segregation and race crimes still haunts many Africans, even to the point of also experiencing same-race hatred when it comes to finding a job, walking on the street or eating at a restaurant. From what I am told, in some parts of Africa, race relations can be compared to living in the South in America----during Jim Crow and even post-Jim Crow.

And I was a victim of this in Uganda recently when I was at an office Christmas party. I was having a great time being around my fellow Ugandan co-workers, even though I am one of the two foreigners at the workplace and the only black American, I felt right at home.

Black like Me

I walked in on two co-workers who were sitting and conversing with one another watching the Oprah show on TV. I asked them what was the topic of the show and they replied race. The co-workers, one male and one female, looked at me and the male co-worker, who I also considered to be a friend, called me a nigger, after I made a comment that it was a bad word to call a black American.

Well, very stunned by the word, I quickly and seriously replied, Please dont say that word. I told you it is very racist. Its like calling a Japanese person a Jap or a white person a honkey, and it is very demeaning.

He replied that he thought the word was ok to say, and even though it was racist, whats the point of not calling me that name because that is what I am.

And I said seriously, No, that is not who I am and white people created that word and it is very racist against blacks and very derogatory, and you should not say that or call me that again.

He said, Why not, nigger? Nigger, nigger, nigger, and started laughing hysterically.

Of course, I didnt find the matter to be funny at all, and wondered why, after I had told my friend that it was a very rude, offensive and racist word to say to me, he would continue teasing me. So, that is when I started yelling at him to stop, and then he continued to yell nigger louder and he stood up. I was already standing over him, and even though he is probably at the most six feet tall, compared to my five-foot three frame, I pushed him and he stumbled onto his desk.

I just wasnt ready for that. I wasnt prepared to confront this name in Africa. I couldnt believe I could hear this word in Africa. Not in Uganda, a place I called my second home. And especially not by a man who was black like me.

But I did. At that point, I felt sadness, anger and my adrenaline was making me shake uncontrollably. But out of all the emotions that were going through my body, the one I felt the most was rage.

The Evolution of the Word

For those Ugandans who are not familiar with the negative ramifications of the word, let me share some background information that will enlighten you to the fact that it is not just offensive to black Americans, but it should also be a word you should avoid at all costs, too.

1936 lynching of Lint Shaw in Royston, Georgia
1936 lynching of Lint Shaw in Royston, Georgia
www.liu.edu


The dictionary says that the word nigger is used as a disparaging term for a black person; used as a disparaging term for a member of any dark-skinned people; used as a disparaging term for a member of any socially, economically, or politically deprived group of people, which is an alteration of dialectal neger, black person, from French negre, from the Spanish negro.

According to Answers.com, the word is a highly controversial term used in many English-speaking countries, including the United States, Canada, Britain, and Australia to refer to individuals with dark skin, especially those of African descent who previously were racially classified by the now outdated term Negro. It was once the standard, casual English term for black people. This word traditionally has been an often casual contempt to assume inherent inferiority, even of bestiality, making it extremely critical in showing disapproval of someone who is black.

For much of its history, until the early 20th century in America, primarily whites used nigger, as a synonym for blacks. The term was a standard one throughout the United States, but particularly commonplace in the slaveholding South. Historically, many whites used the word casually, even dismissively. For most blacks, the term always has been associated with white supremacy, racism, violence and oppression.

Nigger is almost always depreciatory when used by nonblacks in America. Several American English dictionaries have labeled it as a vulgarism, and the term may refer also to anyone regarded as inferior or of subordinate status.

And if you are still wondering if the word could be used toward Africans, the shamefully racist essay Who Needs Niggers? or, Elimination of the Black Plague, by an anti-Semitic racist group called The Creativity Movement, undoubtedly suggests that Africans should particularly be called by the word.

Among all these races, the black niggers of Africa are undoubtedly at the lowest scale of the ladder dubiously called the human race. We of The Creativity Movement disclaim any common racial denominator with the niggers the paper states. .The black African is shiftless, lazy and dumb. He is completely ignorant of the concept of responsibility and is prone to crime and violence the paper also said.

You say Nigger, I say Nigga

My co-worker knew what the word meant. He even told me he hears the word on the radio all the time. Plus, he was watching the Oprah show with the cast from the controversial movie, Crash that debated the words offensiveness among blacks in America. But that day, I believe he and I also realized how much power the word had on black people even in Africa.

I realized that maybe violence was not the answer, and must admit I was extremely caught off guard. Since living in Uganda, I have become more comfortable dealing with persons outside my race and actually establishing healthy and fruitful relationships with them. This is a lot of growth for me, especially since I used to be a strong black nationalist. Now, even though I am not ashamed to be black, I have learned to see that people are more than a color and the past doesnt have to dictate my future. Especially as a Christian, I have come to embrace the scripture that says there is neither Jew or Gentile, man or woman in Christ, meaning who we are on the outside doesnt matter. But what truly matters to God is our heart----who we are on the inside.

So, I try to hang around and befriend people who dont see me as black, but who will like me for who I am. And it has become a challenge in Uganda since because most Ugandans havent experienced racism, it is very hard for them to understand how that word could harbor such rage and animosity in a black American to make one physically violent.

What really made me mad about the entire altercation was that it came from someone who was black and not white. As a black person, white people have called me this word out of resentment and being spiteful, so thats expected. In my anger, this reasoning also confused me, too. My anger made me see a division between my co-worker and me. At that point, he wasnt my friend, or a fellow Christian, but my enemy.

Then, the past criticism and racism I experienced from co-workers and bosses because of my skin color and nationality because they claimed I was more prone to opportunities than Ugandans, were infused in my punch toward my co-worker. But, I always felt that as a missionary and a freelance journalist in Uganda, I was facing financial and social problems just like them. I didnt understand the prejudice from them. I always saw us on the same side.

And of course, the past stereotypical and anti-American remarks from this co-worker also came back to my memory. So, I wasnt just angry at that point, I was mad as hell. And my physical and verbal outbursts were not just pointed at him, but at all the Ugandans who had persecuted me before.

But thank God I didnt curse at him, and another co-worker broke us up before something really bad happened.

He later apologized, and I accepted it. Afterwards when I reflected on the incident, I realized that being called a nigger wasnt the problem, nor was being discriminated against by other black Ugandans was the problem.

I believe the problem is that black Americans are still trying to deal with the past in so many ways, and one of the popular options today is trying to take this negative word and embrace it and change it into a word that will display unity in our race.

I find this option to be a form of self-degradation and self-humiliation. To take a word that has led so many black Americans, blacks in Africa and in the Diaspora to be burned and killed, to be spit and urinated upon, to destroy their owns homes, and dragged to prison and sentenced to death for crimes they didnt commit to be embraced is truly outrageous.

Unfortunately, commercialization and a consequent explosion of black American culture internationally have returned the term to broader public use across ethnicities. And from my experience, I have been offended on occasions when Ugandans have called me a nigga, which means to them a person who is hip or cool, or when they greet me or another black person and say "What's up, my nigga?

Hip-hop group N.W.A- Niggaz With Attitude
Hip-hop group N.W.A- Niggaz With Attitude

Today, the implications of racism are so strong that the use of the word in most situations is taboo in English-speaking countries. Many American magazines and newspapers will not even print it in full, instead using "n*gig*r," "n," or simply "the N-word." In Australia, the word is now rarely used in polite speech by urban whites in any context. But, it has seen common use in rural or semi-frontier districts, even though the usage was British colonial and used generically to dark-skinned people of any origin. Recently, this has led the Australian Aborigines to take the term strongly to heart as racist and demeaning.

Since the 1980s, a common argument among some young African Americans and other youth focuses on the pronunciation of "nigger" as nigga, which they say is simply a synonym for slang words like dude and guy. Such use of nigga is heavily dependent on context. It could be an insult to say, "Hey, you niggas" ( like "Hey, you guys"), but saying, "What up, my niggas?" would be perfectly acceptable.

See, how these contexts can become confusing worldwide?

A Hip Hop Clothing Store in Malawi Called "Niggers"
A Hip Hop Clothing Store in Malawi Called "Niggers"
Source: ChickenBones: A Journal

I also believe, like other opponents against usage of the word, that "nigga" is simply "nigger" pronounced with a southern accent. In addition, the opponents also say when pronounced "nigga" it is intended to be a racial slur anyway.

The N-Word

On the recent Oprah show that talked about race in light of the movie, Crash, she interviewed the movie cast, which also included some white actors. When Oprah asked their opinion of the usage of the word, there were various comments. Actor Don Cheadle said that it should be embraced around the global black community. Actor/rapper Ludicrous said he would continue to use the word, nigga because it displays ethnic pride. Actor Terrence Howard said after a heated debate with Oprah, he would think about not using the word anymore in his social circles.

When I was young, I thought the word was hip and cool. I admit that. But as I grew older, I truly saw the words negative implications and refuse to use it. And this time around, I am definitely on Oprahs side because she is for keeping the word taboo, and for eliminating it from our vocabulary because it helps to keep the racist past from tormenting our liberating future.


It really doesnt matter how its written, the word nigga has not changed the word's centuries-old, racist nature. It is still a term that is offensive and inappropriate in all contexts and toward all black people around the world.

A publication called the African American Registry stated, Nigger was and still is a word of disrespect. ... Black is a nigger, regardless of behavior, earnings, goals, clothing, skills, ethics, or skin color. Finally, if continued use of the word lessened its damage, then nigger would not hurt or cause pain now. Blacks, from slavery 'til today, have internalized many negative images that white society cultivated and broadcast about black skin and black people. This is mirrored in cycles of self-and same-race hatred. The use of the word nigger by blacks reflects this hatred, even when the user is unaware of the psychological forces involved. Nigger is the ultimate expression of white racism and white superiority no matter how it is pronounced.

I want to grow closer to God, and the way for me to do so is to become spiritually mature and to know that word should not cause me to fall under its implications anymore. Like the late writer James Baldwin so eloquently stated, You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger.

But in my case, I pray if anyone within or outside my race calls me that name, it will not destroy me and take away my peace again.

By Aretha Frison
more from author >>
First published: January 16, 2006
Aretha Frison, a native of Detroit, Michigan, and a graduate of Florida A&M University, is currently living in Kampala, Uganda as an independant media consultant for media houses and publishing companies.

She has written, edited and been featured in the Detroit Free Press, U.S. News & World Report, USA Today, the East African, New Vision, The Daily Monitor, Vibe, and other trade magazines and newspapers.

Living in Uganda as a resident, she is actively involved in the Uganda writing arena, local church activities, and volunteer organizations. She can be reached at rereb@hotmail.com.