By now, you’ve heard how Gwyneth Paltrow tweeted a picture of herself with Jay-Z and Kanye West on stage at the “Watch the Throne” concert in Paris with the caption, “N**gas in Paris, for real…” And you probably also know that said tweet ignited a firestorm of fuckery all over the internet regarding her right to use that word. Basically, the anti-Gwyn squad’s well-trod argument goes like this: nigga is a word that has been at least partially rescued from its racist past and co-opted by certain black people for use as a self-referential noun. There is a law governing said use. In its strong form, only those who self-identify as black can access the word. In its weak form, those who don’t necessarily identify as black but who possess sufficient African ancestry can use it also, e.g. Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and other Latinos. White people don’t make the cut though, not even white rappers, unless they’re given a special dispensation by their local chapter of the NAACP personal circle of black friends.
Look, I’m just gonna put it out there and say that this line of thinking is naïve at best and hypocritical at worst. It’s naïve because white people are presented with instances of black people using nigga on the daily. The word is everywhere. It’s on the lips of comedians, definitely in your favorite rapper’s lyrics (even the so-called conscious ones), and most importantly, it’s firmly embedded in the public conversations of everyday black folk on the train, on the bus, in the line at McDonald’s, and at school. Why in the name of Strom Thurmond should any white person feel like they shouldn’t be able to utter that word when black people have made it seem as regular a part of speech as the slightly more common but only somewhat less annoying use of “um”? The aural evidence suggests that they just shouldn’t care since we as black people apparently don’t either.
Nigga, nigga, nigga, nigga, nigga,
Monkey see, monkey do.
— Da Lench Mob, “Ankle Blues”
Right about now, some of you are saying, “Oh, hell no. Just because WE can say it, that doesn’t mean that all of a sudden Whitey has carte blanche to say it. That word is OURS.” And see, this is where I start going gorillas, ‘cause that’s just hypocrisy, and hypocrisy can get the fucking…Balzac. Excuse my French (but I’m in France). Either the godsdamned word is unfailingly vile and only holds one meaning in every situation, thus it should never be used by anyone, or it’s a word like any other, meaning it has a significance that can vary across time and context and as such its use should be evaluated on a case by case basis. What you cannot do is mix both of these views on the act of using the word nigger – let’s call it niggerating – into one pot and serve that shit up like it’s some kind of indignity flavored gumbo. If the word is hateful in all places and times, then it’s always wrong, no matter who says it. Jay-Z and Kanye: wrong. The kids in the fried chicken joint: wrong. Me and you, your momma and your cousin, too: wrong. And yes, Gwyneth Paltrow: wrong. On the other hand, if the word may or may not be offensive depending on the circumstances, then we must evaluate each instance on its own.
I think it’s safe to say that only the most sensitive among us would accuse Ms. Paltrow of being any more of a racist than your average person. She certainly doesn’t seem like a bigot, and she’s never shown any signs of hating black people, to my knowledge at least. In fact, she seems genuinely happy whenever she’s photographed with her black friends, if that counts for anything. If you agree with this admittedly superficial personality reading, then based on what I’ve written above there’s no reason to tar and feather her for niggerating. Babygirl was just expressing her excitement about participating in a very meta experience with some folks who she really enjoys and who in turn apparently really enjoy being niggas in posh European capitals. If you don’t like that they like it, then maybe you should get outraged at them.
Oh, and black people do not “own” that word. If anything, we borrowed it from some really mean people who used to shoot it at us like so many bullets. In reality, no one can own any word, but since they created it, I’d say that white racists are the ones with the biggest claim to it. Fortunately, I believe in the mutability of words and language, so I support the notion that black people reshaped the word “nigger” into something new. In addition to serving as a vessel of hatred, now it’s also one for love and laughter, as well as a simple synonym for “person.”
The fact that we were able to accomplish this transformation is either a testament to our resilience and ingenuity or to the deep internalization of someone else’s hatred. Since we’re human, it’s probably both. With that said, “nigga” is an undeniable part of African-American culture, and since African-American culture forms the basis of modern pop culture worldwide, “nigga” is now a piece of world culture. Trying to mandate that black folks should be the only ones who can niggerate is therefore futile, dude.
But besides being useless, that stance is also lazy. After all, the real problem that Paltrow’s critics have with her isn’t her niggerating. Whether they know it or not, what they’re actually upset about is the idea that black people around the world can never really know the extent to which racism is rooted in the heart of any given white person. Instead of addressing that fundamental concern though, they take a shortcut via censorship, fooling themselves into thinking that it will solve the problem. “Hey! Maybe if they don’t say it, then they won’t think it!”
There’s only one worthy response to that. Nigga, please!