Youth Radio: Understanding The N-Word

Aug 24, 2015

Marcus Williams, 18, just graduated from Northern High School and will be attending Oklahoma State University this fall.

Our series of reports from the WUNC Youth Reporting Institute continues with a look at race and language. Youth Reporter Marcus Williams explores whether it is alright to use the word "nigger," a racially charged word. The word is used throughout his piece and may offend some listeners. 

What's something that divides people more than anything else in America? More divisive than the Confederate flag and more divisive than politics. I'll give you a hint: It's over 400 years old and gets used over 500,000 times a day on Twitter. 

Still can't figure it out? Well, let me break it down for you. The word "nigger" has different meanings. Some use it as a term of hate toward African Americans.

An incident in Buffalo, N.Y., last year became heated between a black man and a white woman. 

"You called me a nigger. Go ahead," said the young African American male. 

"I called you a nigger! You're a nigger! Nasty nigger!" she replied. 

In the song "Alabama Nigger," country artist Johnny Rebel sings, "I'm an Alabama nigger, and I wanna be free. Hell with the NAACP."

However, others use it as a term of endearment by altering the word to "nigga."

Throughout YG's song "My Nigga," rapper Rich Homie Quan sings, "My nigga, my nigga."

Even President Barack Obama has weighed in: "It's not just a matter of it not being polite to say nigger in public."

Youth Reporter Marcus Williams interviews Veronica Terry on what the N-word means to her.
Credit Charlie Shelton / WUNC

As a young African American growing up in Durham, N.C., I heard the word used all the time. Whether it was on the football field or hanging out with friends, it was never really a big deal. But for people from my parent's generation like Veronica Terry, this is a huge deal. 

"Whether you're black, white, whether you old or young, it's just a form of disrespect," Terry said. 

My friend Dalijah Daley said it's even worse when a white person uses the word. 

"A girl thought I was talking to her boyfriend, mind you it was her ex, and she called me a stupid nigger," Daley said. "I kind of got myself upset and I was starting to talk to her back and forth. But then I stopped myself. (I felt) disrespected because I was old enough to know what that word is, and when a Caucasian person especially calls me that, I feel like they've lost their mind."

Many African Americans associate the N-word with slavery and the Jim Crow era. But around the 1980s, the N-word underwent a public transformation. 

Through the voices of hip-hop groups like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five or N.W.A., an offensive word became a new term of endearment. They dropped the "-er" and added an "-a." 

"Just play ball or be an entertainer," Melle Mel says in Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's 'New York New York.' "Cause niggas like me can't read too well."

Marcus Woods and I played football together at Northern High School.

"African Americans kind of just spruced up a word and made it sound good," Woods said. "It’s like how you greet your people. You know like, 'Hey what’s up nigga? How was your day? Nigga it was a good one.'"

Daley said there's a huge difference between the word that ends in "-er" and the one that ends in "-a."

"When people say nigger, they think of a black person," Daley said. "But when you say nigga, it's like you're my friend. Like, 'What's up my nigga,' or something like that."

But even with this new meaning, my teammate Dimaggio Samuel at Northern said the word isn't meant to be used by everybody. 

"When black people use the word nigga in a casual conversation, they're really not offending themselves," Samuel said. "But I feel like if we was on the field and a white person said nigga, we would take offense to it."

While some view the word for its new meaning, others still view it as the same word that was used by the white man to oppress us. 

"I believe the word is very disrespectful on all aspects," said Veronica Terry, a member of an older generation. "It's not something that I like to hear, whether it's my generation saying it or your generation saying it."

As for me, I try not to use the word. But when I'm hanging out with my friends, sometimes I let it slip. It's something I'm working on because I know how it offends people like my parents and their generation.