I came up in a time when there was a healthy stigma around white people saying nigger. Moreso, I came up like a lot of black people, de facto segregated. Thus even finding a white person to slander me would have been a chore. My point is that it’s all about first impressions. The first time “nigger” flew my way, it didn’t come from the mouth of a flummoxed racist, but from the full lips of someone who looked just like me. In writing this piece, I tried to remember when I’d first been called a nigger, but it was like trying to recall the first time I’d heard the word “lotion,” “run,” or “ship.” Nigger has been with me for as long as I can remember.
What became clear to me, at some point, was that there was not a more potent and protean word in my vocabulary. The rappers who run around claiming they’ve cleansed nigger of its worst meanings and its racist past are either ignorant or lying.
I was tempted to say that we should, for the moment, table our complaints about test scores, census data, and other disparities, for some conversation about why we can’t laugh at ourselves. But just as I wrote it, I realized that those two things are in fact related. We all can agree that in decades since segregation ended, we wish we’d accomplished a little more. To see black folks laughing at themselves, in the midst of finishing dead-last in almost every socio-economic category, must legitimately strike a few as dead wrong.
But in the 60s, we chose, as Baldwin said, to integrate the burning house. We have chosen a country where people eat insects on television, where a whole film genre has sprung up around the ghastly torture of women, where fake writers appropriate whole lives in their pitch for stardom. Everything around us is profane. Measured against that reality, forgive me if I don’t rage and fume, if I don’t try to tie the entire future of a people to a word.
Much Ado About the N-Word. [The Root]