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A Controversial Word with Steven Ivory

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A Controversial Word with Steven Ivory


A Controversial Word with Steven Ivory

A Controversial Word with Steven Ivory

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Writer Steven Ivory offers a personal essay on his relationship with what he calls "the most controversial word in American history." Note: This segment contains language that some might find offensive.


Over the last several weeks we've talked a lot about the n-word. Nicholas Minucci, a white 20-year-old, used it while beating a black man in New York City. He was recently convicted of a hate crime. But essayist Steven Ivory says African-Americans, including himself, need to be careful about how they use the words, too.

Listeners, please note, his piece includes some sensitive language.

Mr. STEVEN IVORY (Essayist): It has to be the most controversial word in American history. Created to express extreme bitter hate, it is the bane of a people and the nagging thorn in the side of a nation. That word is nigger.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Singer #1: (Unintelligible)

Mr. IVORY: Like many Black Americans, my relationship with this word is more mystifying than any episode of The Twilight Zone. I deplore the word when used by whites, yet I have used this word, as have millions of other Blacks, both as an expression of disdain and an affectionate camaraderie. As in, you my nigga, or nigga, I love you.

I discovered the word when I was a child, along with basic, four letter words I knew I shouldn't use. And for almost as long as I've used the word, I've tried to come to grips with exactly why it seems okay for a black person to use it.

So I went to streets of South Central Los Angeles to see if someone could tell me something I hadn't heard on the subject.

Unidentified Man # 1: I really don't think it's appropriate, like, when used, like, in general conversation. Like I wouldn't say anything to someone if they said it to me, but I'd be taken a little aback by it. I would be a little surprised. But when it's used in a medium, where it's like expressive as art, something like music when it isn't abused, I'm willing to accept it sometimes.

Mr. IVORY: Interesting thing about this word. When discussing it, black people, like Mark Johnson(ph), a 24-year-old video store clerk, share a confusion as to how we really feel.

Mr. MARK JOHNSON: Well, I wouldn't go so far as to say that I use it in my everyday life, but when I'm joking around with certain people, occasionally, I may use it. But, I mean, people are full spectrum, you know, like...

Mr. IVORY: Isn't that your everyday life, though?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, yeah, it is my everyday life but, I mean, I wouldn't go so far as to say, like, I would use the word every day or, like, three times a week. It's nothing like that. But, I mean, like maybe once or twice I might say it, like, depending on who I'm joking with or where I'm at. You know, sometimes, you know, without thinking, you know, it might slip.

Mr. IVORY: Hmm. Chris Higgins(ph), a 31-year-old father with his three children, offers the ultimate theory, the one so many blacks embrace. Initially, he sounds definitive in his thoughts.

Mr. CHRIS HIGGINS: Black people are taking the word from white people and started to use it themselves, because they wanted to de-sensationalize it, like take the power from the white people who are putting you down, know what I mean? That's why today nobody else can use but us.

Mr. IVORY: Consider one of the great ironic twists of modern culture. With whites not allowed to the word, it is black Americans who sensationalize it.

Mr. HIGGINS: Anybody else trying to use it, it's going to be immediately checked, you know what I mean? Or, you know, whatever the situation might call for.

Mr. IVORY: Oh, and now my brother sounds even more conflicted.

Mr. HIGGINS: Personally, I would prefer that people didn't use it and I would prefer if I don't use it. I would teach my sons not to use it, you know, what I mean? But in the context that it's being used now, I don't really mind it myself, you know what I mean? But anybody else outside of black people, I wouldn't allow them to call me no nigger.

Mr. IVORY: That is something every black person I spoke to agreed on. No one who isn't black, they insisted, should ever be allowed to use this word.

Ms. NAOMI LEWIS(ph): Absolutely not.

Mr. IVORY: 31-year-old Naomi Lewis, who says she only uses the word when singing along with hip-hop, bristled at the mere notion.

Ms. LEWIS: Absolutely not. No. I think it holds a lot of deep feelings for people of the African-American culture. And I don't think it has, even if it's not meant to be derogatory, they have no place even putting it in their mouths. They shouldn't even want to, as far as I'm concerned. Why?

Mr. IVORY: While I understood her point of view, I had to wonder, if we use the word affectionately, why can't white people use it as such? Wouldn't that be one real way to take the negative power from that word? Can the negative power be taken from a word created in hate?

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. IVORY: And so it went. Person after person gave me variations on a theme of resentment, confusion and double talk. But there was this one guy. A 16-year-old kid, actually, named David(ph).

DAVID: I'm from Ghana. I'm from Africa, west Africa.

Mr. IVORY: His words weren't so much wisdom as they were common sense.

DAVID: I've been here, like - for like two years and I've seen like young people using the n-word. They don't care. I mean, somebody could be like 35, 30, whatever, and you could see a young person like 16 years old, like, what's up, my nigger? That's really messed up. I mean, wherever you go, people calling each other nigger, they don't care.

I mean, African-American, Mexican. Especially when you go to the hood. It's really messed up, yeah.

Mr. IVORY: However, David admitted that primarily through black American cultures, such as hip-hop and film, this word has found its way to the motherland, a place where it has no roots whatsoever.

DAVID: Yeah. It's cause, you know, I mean, when I left people wasn't using it. But last time I called my friend, he was like, what's up, nigger?

Mr. IVORY: In simple, fragile English, a young African boy, immune by birthright to a maddening dysfunction that belongs almost exclusively to the black American, gave me all the reason I need to stop using this word. No longer do I wish to sound as lost using this word as other black Americans sound when they attempt to rationalize its use.

And to think, all this commotion about a racist word and black folk have been the only people ever to call me one.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Singer #2: (Unintelligible)

Mr. IVORY: Old habits, especially those considered a form of self-hate, die hard. But the last time you hear this word out of my mouth will be the last time I will utter the word nigger.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Singer #2: (Unintelligible)

CHIDEYA: Steven Ivory is a writer and music critic living in Los Angeles.

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