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"You're pronouncing it wrong. It's not nigger, it's nigga," my friend said. I had just moved to Washington, D.C. -- "Chocolate City" as it's known among the capital city's predominantly black population.
A child of Liberian immigrants who was usually the only black girl in my classes, I grew up in predominantly white Austin, Texas. After moving to D.C., I realized that knowing all the words to every George Strait song wasn't going to help me assimilate into black culture. Supposedly, I needed to know how to talk "black.”
Twenty years later, the Food Network fires Paula Deen for using the same word I practiced saying with a friend in order to have street credibility. Why is it a given that if you are a high-profile white person and say “nigger,” you are demonized, yet if you are a high-profile black person who uses “nigga” in the lyrical fruits of your labor, you are most likely paid substantially for glorifying it?
In the weeks since Paula Deen’s admission to saying “nigger” became public, the N-word has been dissected and hotly debated in the media. Contrary to Prof. Marc Lamont Hill’s belief that "there are just some things white people cannot say," a double standard by any other name is still the same.
Are there any things that black people cannot say or does the legacy of slavery give us carte blanche to unapologetically use dehumanizing language? Even the lasting impact of lynchings and segregation and the present day reality of institutional racism and racial profiling should not provide cover for blacks to use hate speech.
Renowned black studies professors, cultural anthropologists, historians and entertainers poignantly describe how blacks have reclaimed, reshaped and refashioned “nigger.” Like we put on a pair of “nigga” Spanks to help even out the legacy lumps of slavery. Though there is a certain logic to that, as hip-hop historian Davey D writes, "We can't possibly believe that we have the power to change the meaning of the word and expect other people to follow along with this mentality.”
Giving blacks permission to use "nigger" in any form is a slap in the face to our ancestors and living elders who don't have to read a history book to recall the pain inflicted by the word.
“Nigga” champions also conveniently forget that rap music is a global phenomenon and this language represents African-American culture to the world.
Advocates of African-Americans’ innate right to use what many of them describe as the “most offensive word on the planet,” want us to accept that there should be one set of rules for one racial group and another set of rules for another. In other words, an updated version of the outdated and un-American, “separate but equal.”
Many African-Americans never say “nigga.” My parents and their peers don't. Certainly, President Obama and Mrs. Obama would not accept it if one of their daughters referred to the other as “my nigga."
But it sends a message when our president touts his love of Jay-Z’s music without, as James Baldwin once wrote, also publicly using “the great prestige of his office as the moral forum which it can be” to ask his friend to aim higher. All the public has seen is the president quoting Jay-Z’s more suitable lyrics and touting his friendship with the author of "Niggas in Paris."
Carefully parsing out acceptable lyrics for political appeal highlights the stark reality that it is nearly impossible to listen to rap songs without hearing a hailstorm of “niggas,” in addition to revolting misogynistic lyrics (a topic for another day).
Why do these prolific and prophetic poets, who can write such eloquent rhymes, limit themselves to shameful and self-degrading language?
Jay-Z told Oprah that his generation “took the power out of the word.” Don’t believe the hype.
The idea that “nigger” is powerless is a somewhat nonsensical sentiment oft repeated by those who make their living slinging it. If the N-word is truly powerless then why do rappers use it to refer to their adversaries or why can’t white people use it?
My distaste for Paula Deen’s brand began way before this recent scandal. Coaching her fans not to worry about adding more butter and sugar, while hiding a diabetes diagnosis until she could land a lucrative endorsement deal with a pharmaceutical company is daring karma for a well-deserved comeuppance.
However, casually dismissing one of her multitude of excuses that she hears “nigga” being used by her employees in her kitchen only helps exacerbate racial tension. When African-American usage of “nigga” saturates music, social media and everyday conversations, is it hard to imagine why it would so easily roll off the tongues of non-black folk?
Target ended its relationship with Deen, yet their aisles are still lined with hundreds of songs that proudly barrage listeners with “nigger” this, “nigga” that.
On the other hand, Walmart doesn't sell music with explicit lyrics. But if the record label edits the album, Walmart will gladly put it on their shelves. Edited or not, when kids repeat these lyrics they know exactly what to fill in.
Unquestionably, African-Americans aren’t the only consumers of rap music. They aren't even the majority consumers of rap music. Consequently, record labels spend millions of dollars promoting albums that gratuitously use the N-word to white, Latino and Asian audiences and are duly rewarded with sales.
Similarly, retailers make gobs of money selling albums that use the N-word.
Paula Deen was crucified on Twitter. Should the same focus be applied to the relentless corporate promotion and distribution of racially inflammatory language?
Where is the outrage directed toward Target, Apple, Jimmy Iovine, or L.A. Reid? As chairmen of Interscope Records, Iovine is probably the one man who has profited the most from taking "nigger" mainstream.
His peer at Def Jam Records, Reid boasted that Nas titling his album, Nigga was “smart.”
Instead of Paula Deening two ultimate purveyors of hate speech, "American Idol" and "X Factor" gave them jobs.
Did Home Depot, QVC, Novo Nordisk, Caesars Entertainment, Smithfield Foods, and Sears fire Deen for creating a hostile work environment, dreaming of slave plantation weddings, or utterly failing at crisis management? Doubtful. They ran as fast as they could away from the N-word, yet record companies and their distributors get a pass.
There is no question that racism is alive, well and thriving in America. Similarly, there is no question that two generations of Americans have been raised listening to music that bombards them with “nigga.”
Jay-Z and Nas are far from the worst offenders. But even if they have nothing but the best culture-changing intentions, what about the popular performers following in their footsteps?
Chris Brown and his nemesis, Drake, seemingly have no uplifting intentions behind the battery of "niggas" they throw at their fans or each other.
Countless numbers of whites, Latinos and Asians have said, shouted and sung the N-word not once, but multiple times. Should they all be suspended from school or lose their job for regurgitating the language of their idols? For repeating language that was mass marketed to them?
Our current relationship with the N-word is untenable. A cosmetic change in the spelling and pronunciation hinders attempts to relieve racial tension in America.
Where do we go from here? Do we forgive whites for using it or punish everyone who does, including African-Americans?
Certainly, admonishing white people who use the N-word can’t be our most visible weapon to fight racism. Especially since the hypocrisy is too crystal clear and resurrects the very walls we are trying to tear down (see Paula Deen book sales).
I do not believe Paula Deen is a racist. Advocates who give blacks permission to use “nigga,” yet are the first responders in labeling white people who use it as evil and diabolical fail to see the unintended consequences of their actions. Like how some people will keep trying desperately to find a word that is its equivalent, so they, too, can shackle so-called reverse racists (a foolish term).
I’ve experienced this first-hand. After calling Tucker Carlson a “white boy,” conservatives were quick to label me a racist. Would it have mattered to them had they known that Tucker referred to himself as a “white boy” at our first meeting in a green room? No. As far as they were concerned, Jehmu is a racist.
It positively wouldn’t have had any impact on them that I grew up speaking “Texan,” and “white boy” is quite common in conversation down there in them parts.
The #TCOT army would have dismissed the fact that the men I have chosen to love have predominantly been “white boys.” All that mattered is that Jehmu said “white boy” so she is a racist. Labeling someone a racist is becoming as American as apple pie.
Of course, most words have multiple meanings and context absolutely matters, but the varying intentions behind the N-word aren’t limited to the color of the speaker’s skin. Proponents and sympathizers need to stop trying to have it both ways.
Yes, African-Americans may call their friends "nigga" as a term of endearment, but they also use it to demean each other and not just with a lyrical takedown of an archenemy in a rap song.
Educated and wealthy African-Americans often use it behind closed doors to distinguish themselves from the less fortunate.
Several years ago, I was on "The O’Reilly Factor" debating Professor Hill about the use of the N-word in the black community. I was adamant that we shouldn’t keep coming up with excuses to use it and lamented the fact that Elisabeth Hasselbeck was more offended by the word than Whoopi Goldberg and Sherri Shepherd.
Right after leaving the studio, a black man rudely addressed me on the street. Without thinking, I uttered to my girlfriend walking beside me, “stupid nigga." My schooling on how to talk black was now complete.
The 25 times the N-word is spelled out in this piece left me feeling sick to my stomach, not empowered.
I was blessed to have witnessed the first black president in my lifetime. I hope it will be even more thrilling to see a woman do the same in 2016.
Words have life spans. Just imagine if we all did our part to use language that truly lifts us up as members of the human race, perhaps we can celebrate another important benchmark in our lifetime as well: The day the N-word became obsolete.