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A personal reflection on the most polarizing word in the English language

Illustration by Devin Beauregard

ESPN’s Skip Bayless says it’s the most evil word in the English language. Oprah Winfrey says its use is hateful, degrading, and disrespectful to those who suffered in the Civil Rights era. Rapper Nas says it can be used, but only by ‘‘real’’ people, while 50 Cent and Jay-Z believe it all depends on the intent.

Whether it ends with an “a” or an “er,” I’m still torn over the word’s use—and perhaps always will be.

I grew up in rural Nova Scotia, where I was always told that the word had heavy racist connotations attached to it. At the same time, I grew up listening to the likes of Kanye West, 50 Cent, and Fabolous, three rappers who liberally use the word in their music. The contrast in attitudes has always brought up questions for me.

One of the questions I keep coming back to is this: should I be offended when white people say “nigga” while singing along to their favourite rap song, or when they use it as a term of endearment? In short, I’d say yes. Before I came to Ottawa, there wasn’t a single time when a white person used the word kindly toward me. They used it to provoke and verbally attack me. Even when I started living in the city, I found they would use the word a lot more loosely, and there were hardly any consequences.

When it comes to white people, my answer is simple enough—but I’m still conflicted by its use by blacks. Those in favour might say it’s a form of re-appropriation, and I can concede that. If some members of the black community want to take an ugly word from the past and put a positive spin on it in the present, they should be allowed to do so. And they’re not the only ones—some in the LGBTQ community have re-appropriated the word “queer,” which for the longest time was used to undermine people of different sexual orientations.

But I also understand why some black people refuse to endorse the word, citing the misery and hardship it brought to their ancestors. But as a black person in the 21st century, I do not feel as strong of a bond to that period of time and the old wounds that were carried over from past generations.

I’m afraid there will never be a consensus within the black community about the use of the n-word. As we move further away from the Civil Rights movement, its use might become more and more frequent and socially acceptable. However, while vocabulary evolves and meanings can change, we cannot forget the history and pain attached to the word.

I will not be a hypocrite and say that I have never used the word “nigga” and will never use it again. But the next time I do, I’ll be asking myself the same questions that I am asking right now.

Regardless, it will always be the most polarizing word in the English language.