One of the strangest things I ever saw was the rapper Ice-T waltzing — not figuratively, but literally — across a stage in Dallas with Perry Farrell, the slightly fey singer from the band Jane’s Addiction, as the two sang a duet of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey.” This was in 1991, and though young black men had been using the word “nigger” — or, if you prefer, “nigga” — casually for some time, it was unusual for me to hear a white man under 60 using the word at all, much less repeatedly, much less in public. It was only a performance — the guy playing Macbeth doesn’t really have the guy playing Banquo murdered! — but, still, tense.
A considerably less entertaining performance was the conversation between Rachel Jeantel, star of the George Zimmerman trial, and Piers Morgan, television host, regarding the relative merits of “nigger” and “nigga,” which Miss Jeantel is convinced are two entirely different words. Perhaps the philologists eventually will concur. Miss Jeantel argued that “nigga” has simply come to mean “male,” regardless of race, though one suspects that if Rick Santorum were to cheerfully greet Touré as “my nigga” it would produce headlines, and that those headlines would not be celebratory. But Miss Jeantel is not entirely off the mark, either: The nonpejorative use of “nigga” by non-blacks is a well-documented phenomenon, though its social acceptability is diminished the farther away one moves from black culture and from centers of black culture. Puerto Rican and Dominican men in the South Bronx may sometimes get away with it (an assertion I base only on anecdotal observation), but the late Thacher Longstreth, probably not. “Niggur” — used to denote a male of any race, but especially one who is somehow alienated from polite society — was a term of art in the fur trade in the early 19th century, e.g., “That was the time this niggur first felt like taking to the mountains,” from George Ruxton’s Life in the Far West. The early non-pejorative use of “nigger” for black men is attested throughout English-language literature, from Mark Twain to Joseph Conrad’s The Nigger of the“Narcissus”, which was risibly retitled “The N-Word of the ‘Narcissus’” in a 2009 edition.
The distinction between “nigger” and “nigga” is unclear in the classical literature. In 1988, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre were two of several “Niggaz Wit Attitudes,” and in 1991 Ice-T was a “Straight Up Nigga” according to the album’s back cover but a “straight up nigger” according to the song itself: “Damn right I’m a nigger, and I don’t care what you are / ’Cause I’m a capital-N-I-double-G-E-R.” His usage is worth considering in context:
I’m a nigger in America, and that much I flaunt
’Cause when I see what I like, I take what I want.
I’m not the only one, that’s why I’m not bitter,
’Cause everybody is nigger to a nigger.
America was stolen from the Indian, show and prove.
What was that? A straight up nigger move.
. . . What’s a nigger supposed to do?
Wait around for a handout from a nigger like you?
Even though Ice-T takes the trouble to spell the word out, most sources render those lyrics “nigga” rather than “nigger,” suggesting a very strong desire to distinguish between the two. But no such compunction is found in 1974’s That Nigger’s Crazy, the comedy album in which Richard Pryor undertook a strategy of using the word as often as possible in order to “take the sting out of it,” a technique he later came to regret. The idea that repetition of the word can force its evolution into something else is common, as with Russell Simmons’s 1996 explanation: “When we say ‘nigger’ now, it’s very positive. Now all white kids who buy into hip-hop culture call each other ‘nigger’ because they have no history with the word other than something positive.” I hope that not too many white kids put that theory to the test.
The “nigga”-vs.-“nigger” issue comes down to a matter of accent. Black Americans have the same great variety of accents as other Americans, but the idea here is that “nigga” is what “nigger” sounds like when a black man says it, and that context makes all the difference. It may be an affirmation, but it is also at times an act of social aggression. On Monday, standing in front of City Hall in New York, a young black man speaking on his cell phone — shouting into his cell phone, really — used “nigga” no fewer than twelve times during the few seconds it took me to walk into and out of earshot. It is plainly a word used for effect, for the benefit of bystanders, not simply as a generic noun. He was, incidentally, breaking the law, right there in front of City Hall: The New York city council banned the use of the word some time ago, though there are no penalties attached to the violation of that ban.
The phrase “nigga privileges” has emerged to describe the ability to use the word without reproach, as in “Justin Timberlake probably does have nigga privileges.” Jennifer Lopez has conditional nigga privileges: She used the word in a song, producing a minor controversy but not a career-ending one, and her defense — that the song was written by a black man — was more or less accepted.
The inverse is “cracker,” which is similarly socially complicated. The New York Times’ Jonathan Martin, formerly of Politico, discovered that he has at best conditional cracker privileges when he referred to the conservative northern part of Florida as the “cracker counties, if you will.” (How do you know you’re not a cracker? You add “if you will” after potentially offensive phrases.) “Cracker” is unquestionably a term of racial abuse, as in Trayvon Martin’s description of George Zimmerman as a “creepy-ass cracker,” but it’s also a term some Floridians and Georgians use affectionately. When David Lowery of Camper Van Beethoven decided to start a faux-country band, it was natural that he called it “Cracker,” and his doing so did not become a national issue the way N.W.A.’s choice of name did. The comedian Mike Birbiglia advises his black friends: “You can say cracka, but not cracker.” Nobody really cares that much about the use of the word “cracker,” though, for obvious reasons. As a matter of abstract principle, perhaps we should be as solicitous about white people’s racial sensitivities as we are black people’s racial sensitivities, but we aren’t, because we are not idiots.
If the reaction to the Trayvon Martin trial, like the reaction to the O. J. Simpson trial, has many black Americans and white Americans thinking that they don’t even speak the same language, there’s probably a reason for that.