The Washington Post’s front-page graphic, “The N Word,” on Nov. 10, 2014
The Washington Post

When it comes to the n-word, it’s fair to say that the NFL’s zero-tolerance policy represents a certain good-thinking brand of sensitivity. So for that reason alone, there’s some value in the Washington Post’s analysis, this Sunday, of our multifaceted understanding of the word in today’s context.

But as a matter of practicality, the NFL’s new policy makes exactly as much sense as having zero tolerance for a cloud taking a different shape tomorrow than the one it takes today.

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And that same analysis applies to any notion that people calling each other “nigga” are automatically using a “slur,” or are not being sufficiently sensitive to the history of the word in anti-black bigotry.

Folks, language changes. Always. All of it. And neither history nor racism can make any word immune to that relentless reality. The reality this time isn’t as grievous as we are taught to think. Quite simply, the modern in-group use of the n-word is not the same word as the original one—it’s a new one. New words come from old ones; if you think about it, it’s vanishingly rare that someone just creates a word out of the air. “Blog” came from “weblog.” “Daisy” came from “day’s eye.” And “nigga” came from “n—ger.” “Nigga” no more is n—ger than “sweetheart” is a heart that is sweet.

Upon which, note: Although “nigga” doesn’t precisely mean “sweetheart,” it is certainly a term of endearment. Black men refer to each other as “nigga” as a way of signaling affection, in-group membership, equality. It means “pal” or “bro” just as “ace boon coon” did in a distant day among the same cohort of black men.

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Many, however, think the especially nasty origins of “nigga” mean we should treat it specially. But I’m not sure people are aware of how very “special” this treatment would be (or why the call for it never has any effect). Humans have never, cannot and never will go about sagely attending to older meanings of words while trying to talk in the here and now. “Obnoxious” used to mean “ripe for injury”—who knew? We can’t be bothered to now. As recently as the 1930s, it was considered impolite in refined company to say “belly” instead of “stomach”; who’s policing that now?

Is it such a bad thing that black men have a term of such profound affection, which even carries a tone of survival and resistance about it? Something tells me that relatively few people are really thinking that we are required to do anything about a word now used in practically every second sentence by millions of black people nationwide. Especially since this is not new—black people have been affectionately calling each other nigga since the 1800s. I am currently looking at Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem of 1928 and seeing ample testimony to that; also consult Claude Brown, Zora Neale Hurston and so on.

Yet there is an extra wrinkle—and clearly part of what the Post’s piece was getting at—that these days, even nonblack young people are beginning to feel that they can use the word. And that one does take some adjustment. I remember the first time I heard a white teen using it, and had to rerun the tape in my head to make sure I had heard it right. But I felt the same way the first time I saw a teenager wearing baggy pants, and most would agree that the proper response was to get used to it.

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It’s the same with what we might call “Cross-Racial Nigga.” Because “nigga” is not “n—ger,” a white guy saying nigga is not using a slur—he’s using a term of affection, often for another white guy. Cross-Racial Nigga is a byproduct of the “browning” or “tanning” of American culture over the past 20 years, such that many Latino, Asian and white Americans, and others, have adopted the cultural trappings of blackness—in music, speech patterns, body language, humor, etc.—to such an extent that it starts to feel natural to use the corresponding term of affection.

Sure, some of them in quiet moments say they feel as if in some ways they “are” black. And just as sure, they aren’t—there is no denying the grisly meaning of things like what happened to Trayvon Martin. Yet even the racial realities of what happened to Trayvon don’t lead us to pretend that words don’t change meaning, or even that somehow when it comes to one word with an ugly racial history, we can somehow block that from happening.

To wit, a person, white or black, can be perfectly aware of this country’s hideous racial history and happily refer to his friends as nigga. Because “nigga” is not “n—ger.”

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John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.