The situation is this: Two friends of mine; one white male, one black female. One very incendiary word. And the black girl wasn't the one who said it.
I watched the following exchange with nervous curiosity, my eyes flitting back and forth as if the two were engaged in an intense game of ping-pong. My white male friend had been standing there talking like the rest of us, peppering his speech with "nigga this" and "nigga that" as he joked and laughed.
"I'm going to need you to refrain from using that word," my black female friend announced. With a short chuckle of confused acceptance, my white friend agreed. And I breathed a sigh of relief.
It had not even occurred to me this would happen. I opened my mouth to say something; what, I'm not too sure. But upon a quick analysis of the situation, I decided to let them work it out. I'm not gonna choose sides.
Things started moving again; the music started back up; I took a long sip of my beer as people chattered in drunken speech around us. The relief I felt then is the relief I expected to feel now, but on deeper reflection I'm not happy about this situation at all.
What I've realized is that they are both right.
What I say next will qualify me, in the eyes of many, to have my black card revoked:
I am with the white guy on this one.
As a black male, you would think my sensitivities would be more closely aligned with those of the black female, considering that the said event had racial overtones that were not gender-related.
You'd be wrong. There are many points of view on the use of the word "nigga."
Some believe that all racist connotations have simply dissipated with time, and thus its incorporation in our generation's lexicon, regardless of color, is fair game. Others see the word as permanently coupled with its racist origins—derogatory and absolutely intolerable, regardless of who uses it—black, white or otherwise.
Then, there are the black folks who've reclaimed and re-appropriated "nigga," uprooting the word from its negative history to create a positive reference. The folks from this camp wield the word's usage with a tight grip, believing "nigga" to be sole property of the black community.
Me? I'm from the gray-area camp.
How, you may be wondering, did I arrive at this self-imposed ambiguity?
Personality plays a part, but mainly it's my environment. Like most millennials, I had a melting-pot upbringing. I grew up with people of all different shades. All of whom used the word "nigga" with no qualms. This is a day and age where old pejoratives are now the mildly offensive punchline; along with "nigga," terms like "wetback," "spic," "cracker" and "chink" are almost unavoidable.
Everywhere I turn, I hear them—music, television, movies. These forms of entertainment are a reflection of real life, and they influence real life, as well. Though, regardless of which came first—the offensive chicken or the offensive egg—my generation hardly gives these sensitivities a second thought. Past generations have done all that thinking for us, chipping away at the worlds of meaning behind words like "nigga." We have it whittled down to simply 'person.' Call it laziness; call it indifference on the part of millennials. Call it what you like—it is what it is.
Though, apparently, my black female friend missed the memo. She was heated over a word that had gone cold for me and my white friend. I can understand his confusion: He wasn't being insensitive or ignorant. He's not a racist. He didn't grow up in an era when segregation was still prevalent and the vast majority of whites still had racial superiority programmed into their psyche. He was just being himself.
Honestly, if someone asked me not to use a word that others could based solely on the color of my skin, I would be confused, as well. It's not fair. I mean, technically that's racist, a prohibition based solely on race.
But hold on, don't get angry.
Depending on which color camp you ascribe to, I, Mebrahtu Grmai, should be barred from the "privilege" of using the word "nigga," too. I'm just not as in touch with black history as I should be. Essentially, coasting without paying homage to a painful past. Still, I use the word "nigga" and others just as bad. Mercilessly. Yet, somehow, because of my skin color, it's cool?
Let me say this much: My female friend believes no one should use the word. So she had every right to make her request. On the other hand, the gentleman grew up around people who use "nigga" in casual speech; it's a part of his environment. So to him, it's someone he barely knows, coming into his comfort zone and imposing restrictions upon him.
People are the way they are mainly because of their environment. My friend says "nigga" because that's how he grew up, tangled in the cultural confusion typical of the Gen-Y era. He grew up with black people who used the word and don't bat a lash with its usage or his use of it. My other friend doesn't because she still feels the stigma associated with the word. She knows the history of the word, and maybe it still has some sting after all these years.
Two Gen Y'ers. Two very different perspectives.
As you may have realized, this Gen Y'er doesn't really have an opinion one way or the other. I'm kind of like that sometimes. But in reading this article, I would like you to take one thing out of it. I'm not sure what kind of person you are, whether you abuse the word "nigga" or hate it. But before you get mad at someone for saying it, before you request that someone refrain from saying it; before you lose it over some other controversial, semi-derogatory, contextual mess and before you become enveloped in an argument where perspective is the key difference, consider one thing.
Maybe both of you are right.
Mebrahtu Grmai is a writer living in Prince George's County, Maryland.