Popular Linguistics » Invited Essay

Invited Essay

Janet FullerThe Mysteries of the N-word
By Janet M. Fuller
Director of Women’s Studies, Southern Illinois University – Carbondale

I think it’s common knowledge that the word nigger (or its variant nigga) can have different connotations. My students readily accept this, and often are there ahead of me:  If a white person calls a black person a nigger, it’s an insult; if a black person calls another black person a nigger, it can be a neutral term or a term of affection.  (It can also be an insult, and many people find this word offensive regardless of the context.)  But there are undeniably uses of nigger that have friendly intent, and its use with a possessive — usually written as nigga — is usually used to express solidarity. An example from the Oxford English Dictionary illustrates this:

2001    Sports Illustr. 23 Apr. 62/1   He told me his friends had pulled him out [of the fight], he hadn’t done nothin’. ‘They didn’t want me gettin’ in no trouble,’ he said. ‘They my niggas.’

What is puzzling to me is that such usages are objected to, as if the way white people use words should be universal, and as if it is not commonplace for words to have different meanings in different connotations. Note the following posting on (accessed January 26, 2011):

… It is considered a racial crime when a white person uses the word nigger, but it is fine if a black person says the word. If the use of the word nigger wants to be banned then everyone will have to stop using the word, including black people themselves.

To be fair to Urban Dictionary contributors, many posting aptly point out the different meanings of the word ‘nigger’, but at least a third of them echo this tone – it’s not fair that black people get to say ‘nigger’ to each other! This is discrimination against white folks!

I have a couple of responses to this.

First, this is a common phenomenon; words mean different things depending on the context you use them, and one factor which changes meaning of a word is the addressee. I can greet my female friends with ‘hey, bitch’, but if a guy uses that term it is usually seen as derogatory; it’s fine for me to complain about my little brother being a brat but you had better have only nice things to say about him. Human beings use language to align ourselves with and against others.  We recognize social boundaries, and how we speak within groups is different from how we speak across group boundaries. This isn’t about race; it’s about solidarity in general.  What is a sad commentary on our society is that too often we seek, and see, solidarity in racial groups above all other types of social categories.

And it’s certainly possible to use nigga in a positive sense for someone of another race; in her research about teens in the Bay area, Mary Bucholtz cites an example of a white boy who tells a story in which he is threatened by a peer and rescued by a black friend who defends him by saying, ‘stay out of my nigga’s backpack’ – in other words, a young black man refers to a white friend as his nigga to indicate his friendship with him.

And sure, it’s less likely for the reverse to be true – for a white guy to refer to his black friend as my nigga – but there is a reason for this. Racial history in the United States puts a very different spin on the expression ‘my nigger’ when uttered by a white person about a black person; it smacks of, if not explicitly depicting, a master-slave relationship that is not merely a metaphor but was once a reality. So the racial boundaries have a history, and the word nigger has a history, and it is a history of racial inequality.

We can’t leave history out of it. Power relationships matter, and we can’t escape the history of white people having more power than black people in the United States. Even if particular white speakers are themselves not more powerful than the black people they are addressing, their use of ‘nigger’ would reference a power relationship with white people in a superior position – unless, of course, a close personal relationship trumps that dynamic. To make another parallel to gender, it’s quite different if adult women refer to their female friends as ‘girls’ and if a male boss refers to female employees as ‘girls’. The first is about solidarity — and, probably, wanting to tap into the positive associations of youth — and the second is about depicting the female employees as powerless and inconsequential, part of a faceless, gendered group.

In short, context matters. Referencing race as part of expressing solidarity (what up, nigga) is different from recognizing race as a means of putting someone down (you dirty nigger).

When my children were small, they would sometimes ask me, “Is X a bad word?”  Ever the linguist, I would always reply, “There are no bad words; but there are ways of using words that make people feel bad.” An oversimplification, yes, but I still stand by this position. Words have social connotations we have to recognize, but ultimately we shape those meanings by how we use them.

  • RSS


Advertise on Popular Linguistics Magazine! Contact for rates and details.

copyright@2024. popularlinguisticsonline/.All rights reserved

Popular Linguistics Magazine, Volume One - 2011