I know that some of us do not know what is going on with youth. And I know some of us do not know or really care about ‘older’ people and the elderly. They’ve lived their life, now you are living yours. There is no history that has anything to do with some of us, in our present thinking. I also understand that not all the words used ‘within’ a historical culture are known. Languages have always changed, always been fluid.
The use of the term ‘nigga’ by the African-American community has stirred debates and reflections in communities that have come into contact with African-American urban youth. The subject has become a way to speak of racism and its heritage and the subject of empowerment and the use of words–‘how’ words are used instead of tight definitions. The use of that word has also touched on the subject of forgetting history and respect/disrespect discussion.
The historical meaning of ‘nigger’ was meant as a derogatory, condescending, humiliating and spirit-breaking word directed at African-Americans in the United States. The older generation can hardly stand to hear that word nowadays, even as political correctness may have drowned that word out of public spaces. The word is still used in private by white and Asian and Latino people I know who still hate African-American people and black-ness. The word still exists. Young African Americans now use ‘nigga,’ a slightly slanged word which is most often used by them to mean different things. ‘M-nigga’ refers to ‘My Nigger’ and is a friend, a buddy, a confidant. But the word is also used to mean the old meaning toward each other when seen fit. The word has the same underpinning, even as ‘nigga’ is a perversion of the demeaning meaning and meant to change that meaning into a positive connotation. Another aspect is its inclusion/exclusion dynamic. ‘Nigga’ can be used only by the insiders. Not outsiders. The control of the word is used by the group. In this way, the older term, controlled against that group, is reversed. However, the use of the ‘N’ word still is retained whenever it is seen fit – but by the insider group, not anyone else. We can get to ‘internalized oppression’ in another essay.
Young African-Americans are taught that Martin Luther King should be respected and to understand history. But young Black people in the US, born after 1970, let’s say, only know this through their parents and what the textbooks now say about the Civil Rights movement. The relationship people have to their own past is cut-off. They do not see any people being relegated to the backs of busses. They do not see too much overt discrimination as told to them through the Civil Rights movement. Because the African-American movement and the people and families themselves have been fractured in many ways, torn-apart and individualized the US courts, schools, and institutions such as the social work institution — what was before, is hardly recognized. The burn-out rate of social workers is extremely high because their intentions to improve the lives of the underclass African-American lives cannot happen with the rules and regulations — derived from assumptions of the ‘not-yet-fully-assimilated’ kind, coupled with the bureacracy meant to bury things in papers and computer blips.
The use of ‘nigga’ will continue until other words come into the cultural domain of disenfranchised groups. For many Black youth that I speak with in the United States, the ability to buy more things (consumerism); watch more television; have more personal freedom away from their working single parents (I’m just presenting one scenario of many); and have basketball stars and hip-hop music videos and sports stars thrown into their consciousness as high places and goals and realities, moves the young mind away from the fact that there is the oppression of seeing those as the ONLY things that are the dream–the ‘good life.’ In other words, oppression exists but is not seen as oppression.
Their mothers straighten out their hair. Kinky African hair still will not do in the US. Do white women buy African-American wigs to ‘look good?’ Although there are movements to empower African hair-dos for women, by-in-large, it is still needing ‘acceptance’ by the so-called ‘American’ community.’ It is controlled by the amount of money certain businesses and corporations can make. The more black it looks in tradition (i.e. kinky hair, more urban black language slang, different clothes, etc.) the less money it can make because the more wealthy consumers (who are mostly white and middle to upper class) are the ones who can afford to buy things. ‘Nigga’ is a form of both resistance and a form of continuity in culture. The ‘wealth’ of African-American-ness, is primarily sequestered in sports and entertainment. To say it in a very politically-incorrect imagery–we are still doing black-face. The difference is now we can make billions of dollars. It is just consumed into capitalist systems of income production. Boundaries of race-relations are more open now, but racism goes more underground and more covert, passive-aggressive, taking on different shapes within each of us, and in the ‘other.’
Now let us switch to some interesting slang related to this discussion. The term ‘Queer’ has had a similar history for non-heterosexually-determined people when it comes to derogatory, violent word-labels. Most US American older gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and questioning people were called queer in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. The word was also meant to humiliate, condescend and demote, legitimizing further violence. If that person was queer, a person had the right to beat them up. The police often did and often did not go to the homes of domestic disputes of gay couples because of their homophobia, heterosexism. Being queer was painful. So in a similar fashion to the ‘N’ word for an older generation of Blacks in the US, ‘queer’ is not a word appreciated within the older generation of LGBTQIQ people nowadays. But now, queer is meant as an empowering identity. Even as being called ‘gay’ is still double-edged (proud of gay culture but when a person calls someone gay accompanied by a mean-spirited limp-wristed gesture – it is hardly empowering), queer has moved into the domain of non-sexually identified and free-from-heterosexism ideas. The word ‘queer’ is somewhat disputed in the primarily male ‘gay’ communities but is more-or-less accepted as another identity label.
In the Asian-American community, we’ve heard ‘ninja‘ used. Problematic because it is a Japanese word and does not represent ‘all Asians’ as if that would be possible. And to say the least about Japan’s relationship to the rest of Asia as a former colonizer and brutalizer, as much as Japan has been a ‘modernizer (the two usually go hand-in-hand in most, but not all, cases).
The term ‘ninja’ 忍者 or shinobi 忍び, describes the covert agent/mercenaries during the Japanese feudal period, who had special skills in espionage, sabotage and were said to have ‘mysterious’ skills http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ninja. Nowadays, ninjas circulate in video game landscape, the anime and manga worlds which are now globalized.
The below video is a humorous look at this entire discussion, told through the lens of Asian-Americans using ‘ninja’ as a slang word for a certain buddy-relationship as well as a word to demean within that context. It’s a laugh, a question, a reflection.