Comedian Dave Chappelle had a fondness for the word “nigger.” He used it liberally in his comedy bits, even extending the racial slur to non-black people. It became a catch all handle for any and everyone. It was just an expression for him and it was one that got laughs.
To a point.
Some people were laughing with Chappelle and that infamous word. Others were laughing at him. And nothing disturbed him more than the individuals who relished in the taboo nature of the racially charged term. Those who longed to say it with reckless abandon, who argued that if Chappelle could say it, if other black people could say it, if rappers could say it, why couldn’t white people say it too?
I have an easy answer to that question. No one can really “say” the N-word, white, black or otherwise. It has always been a “use at your own risk” term.
My mother does not curse and she does not use the term nigger. My father does curse and does use the term. The great battle of the word nigger has been going on in the Belton household for decades as my mother bristles at the usage, refuses to say it, does not like to hear it and finds it offensive coming from anyone, including the man she loves and married. My father believes that while offensive it can be used between black people as a term of familiarity.
But even he agrees there are consequences. Even he knows he can’t use it any and everywhere. What’s appropriate to say when joshing around with his club brothers is not appropriate at work or with his wife or with others. He knows how he would be perceived if he were to just drop it in casual conversation and that it would go over about as well as a curse term he loathes, “mother fucker.”
No one can say it, not even black people, without potentially upsetting other someone. During the Don Imus “nappy headed ho” debacle I was often befuddled how no one pointed out that if a black person had said the same thing there would have been some level of outrage, just as there are blacks who regularly speak out against the vulgarity in rap music. These words, that Imus claimed to have overheard from black culture and music, are considered offensive among blacks. It wasn’t just that a white man had said them. If anyone had said them they would have been offensive. If rapper 50 Cent had said them there would have been black some people bemoaning the tragedy of yet another rapper denigrating black women.
So when I meet people who desire to use such loaded terms as nigger or nappy, I tell them “You can use it, but if you get your ass kicked, don’t complain.” Because these are derogatory terms. These are defamatory terms. These are controversial terms. White or black, you’re going to offend somebody when you’re purposely being offensive.