Have you heard the outrage over Gwyneth Paltrow’s recent controversial tweet?
“N**gas in Paris, for real…” she said, with an accompanying picture of herself on stage with pals Kanye West and Jay-Z during their Paris concert.
Reasonable minds can disagree about whether it’s socially acceptable for people, Caucasians especially, to use the N-word. And while there are sound arguments to be made on both sides, my arguments are sounder.
In a completely unscientific, anecdotal, mostly useless, wildly opinionated opinion poll I never took, I’d say the main arguments against using the N-word are because of our history with slavery and the brutal, racist, post-emancipation Jim Crow era that slavery begat.
And, yeah, man, I absolutely, 100-percent get that reasoning—and I’d agree, were it not for this one nagging article of thinkery: If slavery is the reason we can’t say “nigger,” then why is it OK to say “slavery”?
Why is it OK to say, “My boss treats me like a slave,” but if I said, “My boss treats me like a house nigger,” all hell would break loose? The answer is simple—because it’s not the memory of slavery and post-slavery bigotry that makes the N-word bad. It’s the bigots who used the word, and the way they used it— repeatedly, ferociously, violently—that turned it into the despicable utterance that it is.
However, the N-word has neutral origins. Long before Sir John Hawkins delivered America its first batch of slaves from The Good Ship Jesus (yup, that was the real name of the vessel), the N-word was just a synonym for “black” or “African,” devoid of derogatory connotation. The point being, meanings of words can change. What was once a harmless term for negroid—no more offensive than “Caucasian” or “Hispanic”—became a scandalous epithet. And now it’s changing again, thanks to the wisdom and wit of African-American rappers, comics and poets, who first throttled that rattlesnake of a word in the 1960s and then began the slow, long process of de-fanging it, and they’ve been escorting it into the mainstream ever since.
Today, we’re at the crossroads of an historical, etymological revolution. We can either keep the previous meaning or adopt the new one. And my position is: Why are we still clinging to that ugly old thing? Why would we ever choose to stay on a negative tip when we have a choice to make a positive change? And most importantly, why wouldn’t we want to eradicate one of the most powerful weapons in the hardcore bigot’s verbal arsenal? Just imagine it getting to the point where the N- word is universally a word of fellowship and a bigot tried to use it the old hateful way—how dope would that be?Bigot: “Hey, nigger, what are you doing in my neighborhood?”
Black Man: “I’m just chillin’, homey, wassup?”
Bigot: “Huh? What? Are you deaf? I just called you the N-word.”
Black Man: “Yeah, sweet, my nigga, wassup?”
Bigot: “No, no—you don’t get it. I’m insulting you, because I hate you. I hate you for no other reason than the color of your skin. Now can we fight already?”
Black Man: “Ha ha ha—you funny, my nigga; let’s get a beer!”
Bigot: [Sighs] “Oh, alright, but you’re buying!”
The new meaning of the N-word is fuzzy and warm. It means “My pal, my buddy—I got your back.” All my life I’ve wanted a black man to call me that. To my dismay, it’s only happened once, about 20 years ago, at an X-Clan show. This was before rap had gone mainstream—especially quasi-militant, black-power-Malcolm rap like X- Clan’s—and I was one of, maybe, three white guys in the place. I was rocking out in the back when a brotha asked what I was doing at a rap show. I told him I was excited to be witnessing the birth of a new musical genre and fascinated to hear a musical and lyrical perspective that was utterly new to me, and it was just plain good shit.
“I want so badly to be a part of this,” I told him. “I would be honored if you called me ‘Nigga.’” Without blinking an eye, he said, “OK, buy me a drink, nigga!”
Gawd, I loved that! I loved how rappers used words in ways I hadn’t heard—words like blazed, fly, down, steppin’, chillin’, frontin’, wack, dome, hood, peeps, posse, crew, homey, brotha, black (as a proper noun), baby-pop, G., loc and, of course, the word that begins with N, ends with R and has a bucket-full of blood, guts and bombast in between.
And 20-plus years later, these words still populate my vocabulary, because they’re embedded. It’s the same as when you move to another region or country and you start to unconsciously adopt the idiom of the locals. If you listen to rap long enough and often enough, the N-word on your lips will feel right as Rock—Chris Rock, my nigga.
That’s why Paltrow used the N-word so nonchalantly. Because she’s friends with Jay-Z, Kanye, Beyoncé, The Dream, Nas—they’re all hanging out right now. She was just talking like her friends talk, which everyone does. That’s why she didn’t apologize or backpedal. She stood her ground, like a real nigga. And I say that because, in this case, “nigga” don’t mean “the black person I hate for being black.” Sometimes a nigga is a skinny white bitch with balls of brass.