It’s 2012 and a Whole Lot of People Are Still Using the Word “Nigger”

The confusing vocabulary of the supposedly post-racial 21st century.

Last week, I decided to check out a Delaware County bar, based on repeated recommendations from two acquaintances. When I walked inside, I realized that one of the acquaintances was there, seated with some other people I know, at least by name. So, I sat down at their table and ordered a Miller High Life (don’t judge). After a few minutes, one of them called the owner over for a chat, introducing me as a reporter. I hate it when people do that.

The bar owner seemed like a smart and charming fellow, a white man, probably in his late 30s or early 40s, and we had a brief conversation about the history of his taproom. Then one of the guys at my table blurted out, “Hey, Victor, you should write a story about this place!” As I began to respond to the awkward suggestion, the owner interrupted. “No, no no, please don’t do that,” he insisted. “Or then I’m gonna have a bunch of niggers lining up outside the door.”

Here is a man who just met me, knew I was a reporter, seemed perfectly normal otherwise, and yet chose to unleash that most notorious racial epithet in my presence, within earshot of at least a dozen others. (No, there were no black people in the bar).

I don’t think I reacted much to his choice of words. Someone at the table chuckled and agreed with the owner that they wouldn’t want the outcome that he feared. And with that, I excused myself a few moments later and retired for the evening.

Since then, I’ve been wondering how I might have responded differently—or at all—and I’ve also been wondering what the heck it was about me that made him think it was OK to say that. Just because I’m white?

It’s certainly not the first time I heard that word. Its use was a no-no in my house, and I can honestly say that my parents never used it and that I’ve never uttered it, or even thought about doing so, in a purposefully offensive way. But this wasn’t the case in the homes of some of my friends, whose fathers seemed to drop it without too much hesitation.

One of those friends used it in my presence once we were both grown—granted, he was very drunk at the time and it was after we had a pretty nasty run-in with a group of black guys who were clearly hating on us because of our color—and I gave him a good talking to about it, because I knew him and felt I could. Since then, he’s never come close to saying it around me, and I think the discussion may have actually made him question some of his beliefs and values.

Strangely, I don’t remember hearing that word all that much in my adult life until a guy named Barack Obama campaigned for and then won the presidency. I stopped going to a certain bar once I heard someone there—a regular—say, “Someone ought to shoot that little nigger.” I thought of calling the Secret Service, just to mess with him.

I turned down a membership at the 34th Ward Club, an Italian-American social club in Philadelphia, because every time visited, I would hear the slur. EVERY. TIME. No exaggeration. And yes, this in 21st Century Philadelphia. I guess some people don’t feel the need to hide behind white hoods these days.

On the same day as my recent incident at the Delaware County bar, annoyingly mononymous MSNBC host Toure went on the air and accused Mitt Romney of participating in the “niggerization” of President Obama:

He’s really trying to use racial coding and access some really deep stereotypes about the angry black man. This is part of the playbook against Obama, the “otherization”; he’s not like us. I know it’s a heavy thing to say, I don’t say it lightly, but this is niggerization. You are not one of us. You are like the scary black man we’ve been trained to fear.

One day later, Toure apologized for using the word “niggerization.” But his apology didn’t exactly make it clear why he apologized. Did he apologize because it was an unfair accusation against the presumptive Republican nominee for President? Or did he apologize because he is not allowed to use the word “nigger” or any derivative of it on national television? My guess is that Toure believes in what he said, and it’s true that Romney’s supporters—if not his campaign—are participating in the “niggerization” of President Obama. Just like Obama’s supporters—if not his campaign—are participating in the scary-white-racist-rich-Mormonization of Romney. Unfortunately, that’s just Politics 2012.

Just yesterday afternoon, I decided to do a little research on Twitter to see how often the word “nigger” is used there. Oh boy. It’s not often that I have to admit to being naive, but I have to admit that I was pretty naive before doing that search. Sure, I’ve heard black men call each other “nigger” in a way that is somehow acceptable to them and some members of their community. And I’ve heard white guys who think they’re black guys use the term in the same way, and I’ve always assumed that at some point they would get their asses kicked.

But it turns out there’s quite a hefty dose of “nigger” usage on Twitter, far more than I would have ever expected. There are black people using it in a purportedly congenial way. There are people debating the difference between the word “nigger” and the word “nigga,” and it’s worth noting that there are far more people on Twitter using the latter, although I am still pretty sure that white people are not supposed to use either when referring to black people, or at all.

There are tween blond girls tweeting it at each other for some ungodly reason, and there are people reprimanding them for doing so, some, unsurprisingly, in a threatening fashion. Through my thoroughly unscientific study of yesterday’s Twitter feed, I’d say that someone tweets “nigger” an average of 10 times a minute. That’s more than 14,000 uses each day on Twitter alone. I had a hard time finding people who were using it as an obvious slur, although they were out there.

I’m not exactly sure what to make of all of this. Twenty years ago, when I was a teenager, I never would have thought that I would be a 38-year-old man who hears this word that is so hurtful to so many used in a derogatory way by average citizens in public places and at the same time, casually, sometimes even as a term of endearment, between friends.

Plenty of words that have been part of the English language over the centuries have become archaic, obsolete and forgotten. Why on earth can’t we seem to rid ourselves of this one?

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  • fredleonard1

    What this seemingly PC writer neglects to point out is the so-called “N-word” is most often used by those to whom it is applied. The word won’t die as long as they keep using it. As long as they use it, they forfeit the ethical or moral standing to demand that nobody else should use it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bcmayes Byron

    Such poor reasoning by fredleaonard1. First, the majority of Black people, certainly the majority that I know, don’t use the word. In any capacity. That minority that does is mostly very young, and with a lot of growing up to do. I’d imagine that’s true for the Black people that fredleonard1 knows as well. Unless he’s one of those “white guys who think they’re black guys” Fiorillo refers to above.

    But if that were the case, we wouldn’t have the willfully separative “they” repeated with such fervor. Bringing me to the second point.

    So what if “they” use it? It’s not about whether “they” can demand you not use the word. It’s about *you* having some basic sense of decency and class of your own accord. The reason that an individual (of any color) shouldn’t use it is because he or she realizes that it’s not the way an intelligent, well-bred adult behaves.

    There are women who use the term “bitch” to refer to other women, often directly to each other. Is it then okay for me as a man to refer to all women as “bitches” because “they” use it, too? Is it okay for a (publicly) straight person to call all gays “faggots” because some of “them” use it towards each other as a snarky term of endearment?

    No, in either case or in any like them. It’s not about what (a minority of) “they” do. It’s about what *you* and how *you* think. Using the “n-word” (or the “b-word” or the “f-word”) only says something about the user.

  • bill k

    No it is not ok to refer to “all women” as bitches but the word is still useful in the particular. I hear it as the female equivalent of “asshole”, which doesn’t work so well for females. “Asshole” gets more use because there are a lot more of them in this world than there are bitches. “Nigger” is a strong pejorative implying an inherent inferiority and has no place in normal conversation. “Bitch” is a label to be earned.

  • persephone

    “Plenty of words that have been part of the English language over the
    centuries have become archaic, obsolete and forgotten. Why on earth
    can’t we seem to rid ourselves of this one?”

    Because it’s POWERFUL.