By Juan Miguel Martinez
Filthy white slavers. They created the word. A word that apparently meant “stupid person” but turned it into a word used to degrade an entire race of people into believing they were not only less then human, but less than animal. It was repeated, beaten into consciousness, whipped into the backs of melinated skin.
It is a word that took form after “Negro”, a Spanish word meaning “black”. “Niger” was the latin adjective for black. The word became mispronounced by people purchasing black folk who were shipped into the American colonies. The first apparent recorded use was in 1775, one year before The United States was born. The rise of the colonies brought with it a word that would be justified by the general population in many convoluted and confused ways. The main argument that makes the most sense is “We take the power of the word away by using it as a term of endearment.” It is also considered a cultural thing, something that people roll their eyes at if you ask they not use it. There are people of color that do not use the word at all and would love to see it taken out of the general American vernacular, and there are other people that approach it with a joyful exuberance as a spit in the face of the people who created it.
As a chicano kid that grew up on 53rd and capitol and went to an elementary that had mostly black kids in attendance, I was never one to use it. The teachers were proud black folk that celebrated black history month all year long. They made learning about black culture my favorite subject. The leaders were fired up, were no strangers to opposition and charged on in the face of the devil. They had names like Malcolm X, like the X-men, my favorite comic and show. They were like superheroes. My teachers never spoke of the word’s usage and the kids never really said it much unless they were reciting lyrics from an Ice cube song. The weekends were slightly different, it was when I spent time with my family on the south side. I had older cousins that listened to rap which was mostly in the chicano vein. The N word was absent from the bars spit by the likes of Kid Frost, Kinto Sol and Cypress Hill (sometimes). The 90’s pressed on however and rap changed and all of a sudden I was in middle school. Tupac and Biggie ruled the game. Everyone loved him and sang lyrics from “How do U want it” on the back of the bus. I always sang the lyrics to myself and I didn’t skip the word in the chorus when K-Ci and Jo-Jo say “..comin’ up as a n***a in the cash game, livin’ in the fast lane, I’m for real”. This was always a secret and I didn’t want anyone to know I liked rap music. I was surrounded by family and other latinos that called me white because I liked Green Jelly, Nirvana and Green Day. The more I was berated, the more I liked what I liked. Throughout my days in middle school I used the word constantly. It still wasn’t allowed on television, but it was rampant on CD’s that had the parental advisory sticker. It was exciting to use it, I felt dangerous. I was living on the corner of 14th and Lincoln above a hair salon with my recently divorced mother. Latino people used it all the time, in the company of black folk all around the block I lived on. The word lost meaning for me, it was like saying “dude” or “man” to me. My mother relocated us to Oak Creek in 1998, my last year of middle school. I wasn’t necessarily happy about it but I hated Milwaukee School of Languages, a school that wasn’t kind to chicano kids that didn’t tow the line. You like what we like and act how we act or you will constantly get fucked with. At Oak Creek West middle school I became friends with Aaron Beckett who was white, Manik Jaitly who was Indian, and Jerry Xiong who was Hmong. We were a group of multicultural nerds and liked discussing The Simpsons and a new show that just premiered called South Park. There was fat white kid who had a shitty fauxhawk named Matt who always wanted to be part of our group and called me “Beaner” and “Stupid Mexican”. I’m not a stupid Mexican but beaner seemed appropriate because I ate beans every morning since I can remember. We hated him. He called black kids the N word and would always try to get us to laugh with him about it. The way suburban black kids were treated was horrifying. The white kids gleefully called them “burnt skins” and said black slang at them which was always said incorrectly.
“ya ya ya, is it true your mama’s a whore?” they would say. I think they meant “Yo Yo Yo”. The black kids, feeling outnumbered, would laugh and say “She’s a HO, not a whore!”
“Whatever Ni**aaaa”, they would say through their braces and overbites, blonde mushroom haircuts smelling of wet dog.
I disavowed it. I felt that that’s what I looked like saying it. I was upset that I was becoming like the people that bullied me and being a much bigger bully, to an entire race of people. I discussed this with Jerry and Aaron one day. Someone in Aaron’s family had married a black man and his entire family never used it. They never used it prior to that, but they were taught to be respectful. Jerry told me from under his bowl cut, “I said it once when I was repeating a line from Menace II Society and my mom slapped me in the mouth.”
Has the word come out of my mouth since 1998? As a term of endearment, most definitely. Have I ever said it in anger when referring to black folk? Yes, but not since I was maybe 10, when I was mimicking some kind of taught behavior like children are known to do. It is an attitude I have long since unlearned, a word that has not been spat and now lays dormant for me. Is it a cultural thing? Maybe, as most latino/a/x ppl descend from dark skinned people and the word is meant to lump them all together. I have seen dark skinned people use it to brand their warrior spirit, and some just use it because it is a word they never outgrew. Everyone maintains there is a difference between the “er” suffix and the “a” suffix. I will never lecture African American folks on whether it should be used or not, as it is their word to use how they see fit. I will say I feel a profound annoyance when I see people who are not black use it, particularly white folks who maybe went to a high school on the north side at some point. I do not use it myself, with either suffix. As People of color, we are all in this boat, collectively fucked by a ruling class, always being held down. They attempt to colonize our minds as it is in their blood to do so. It is something they have natural predilection towards, hardwired in their genealogy. They weaponize us against ourselves and love when we find ways to hurt each other. If it offends those around you, why keep using the word? Respect is an important quality that needs to be exercised at all times, as it is natural in human nature. Stop forgetting it so easily. Also, always do your part for society and check white people that use the word.