Years ago I was a high school teacher in an urban school where approximately 75% of the student body was Hispanic. It was a beautiful experience. On my first day, I heard numerous kids using a variation of the N-Word in the hallways. Welcome to our school Mr. Mack! I immediately questioned the first five or six students who I heard say it to one another. They didn’t know me yet. In fact, I was told I might have been the first African-American teacher the school ever had (or at least the first one in quite some time).
The students immediately thought that I should “get it.” They were not using the real N-word. Instead, they were using the term of endearment that black people have used for a long time. Therefore, it was alright for them to use it. Even some of the white kids in the school used this term of endearment. Imagine a black man hearing the “word” nigga coming out of the mouth of a white kid! This was new to me.
I struggled with this for the first week or two. After that, it became “normal” to hear kids of all races use this “word” to communicate with one another. I found it strange when it appeared as if no other faculty member had a problem with this. Maybe they didn’t hear it- IMPOSSIBLE ! Maybe they just accepted it like I did. Day after day, I heard…
it used as a term of endearment- my nigga!
it used as a term to dismiss- whatever nigga!
it used as a term to put down- stupid nigga!
Something inside me said I needed to take a stand in my own way. I had a conversation with one student about it. His use of the word was so far out of bounds that he obviously did not know the history behind the real N-word, nor what could happen if a black person heard him use any variation of it. He was really quick to use it too, as if he could substitute it for any name he was about to say. I told him for his own good: one day you are going to say that in front of the wrong person at the wrong time.
Months later this particular student got into an altercation with some other teenagers. I never found out if it was escalated by him saying an unintentional “whatever nigga”, but I am sure it was. Thank goodness the incident was an old-fashioned fistfight, instead of the gunplay that claims the lives of so many people. My point is that using the “word” nigga, just like so many other things, requires a certain amount of care and self-awareness.
By no means am I saying that it is alright for anyone to use nigga, the real N-word, or any other real or perceived slur. IT IS NOT ! I am saying that it might be too late: not only do we have a generation of young, black people using both versions, but we also have a growing number of young people from all races using these “terms of endearment.” I think the genie is out of the bottle on this one. The question is: will we ever get a handle on this issue and eradicate the use of the N-word (and all variations of it)?
Just so you know, in the hallways of that high school they were calling each other nigga faster and more frequently than I could correct them! I felt like a fireman trying to extinguish a forest fire with a water gun. Get the picture?
I guess I still need some help with this one. My two cents on this issue is that we need to clean this up now.