The soft “a” is crucial


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As a white dude who is a rap fan, I’ve always had a strange relationship with the word “nigga”. Not to be confused with it’s cousin word with a harder “r” sound ,with whom I’ve had a much more defined relationship with. Obviously, we’ve never been close.
But with “nigga” ,I’ve never been one to use it. It just never felt right coming out of my mouth. Aside from the more obvious social reasons, I don’t speak with a particularly affected twang so to say something like “Yo, nigga, could you please pass me the soy sauce” wouldn’t really make sense or benefit anything. Besides, even if i were to harmlessly indulge in saying it, you never know who you’re going to accidentally offend by doing so. It just never seemed worth it.
That said, over the course of my life it has been a word that I’ve heard with great frequency. Both in music and in life. So i figured it would be fun to look back at some funny moments with that word and how it relates to a fairly normal , yet self aware white dude from a city.

1)The first time I got called a nigga
Blame my bohemian upbringing or being from a melting pot type city but I literally didn’t hear a white person refer to a black person in a derogatory fashion (in person) until I left New York. It wasn’t till I went to school in Boston that i heard someone refer to a black guy as a “nigger” and mean it. It was done in such a matter of fact way I was just kinda speechless. It was also done in that bitch ass , wink wink, nudge nudge kinda way as if to say “Hey, we’re both white here, right?”.
As clearly as i remember that moment with great disdain, I’ll never forget the first time a black guy called me “nigga” with great fondness.
As a young rap white rap fan in the early 90’s, there wasn’t much happening to make us feel good about ourselves (and rightfully so…after all, we were white). The beastie boys and 3rd bass were the beginning and end of it. Not to mention, it was a time period when a good deal of my favorite rap was highly afrocentric/pro-black. Groups like X-Clan, Poor righteous Teachers, King Sun and even the friendly Native tongue crew all wore africa medallions and spoke of things that I , as a white guy, could only examine from outside the bubble. So suffice to say, I looked at these guys with great admiration but also with an understanding that I’d never truly be like them no matter how hard i tried. I’d like to think most white kids my age during that time had that revelation but judging from how most of the kids I went to high school acted, they didn’t figure it out until they were in their twenties.
So, realizing that I could never really be down, i simply didn’t try too hard. I just listened to the music fiendishly and that was that. Still, that want to be accepted never really died.
One day, I was walking down the street with a basketball , on my way to the park to go shoot around. I was passing by west 4th street (which is a highly populated area in greenwich village). Out of the sea of bodies I heard someone saying “ay yo nigga! Yo…Nigga!”. It sounded like it was aimed at me but, obviously, that wouldn’t make much sense so I kept moving.
“Yo, nigga! Yo, white boy with that basketball!” I turned around.
“Lemme see that ball for a second”.
I was kind of in shock. I hope I didn’t but I may have been making a face like someone being picked as a pageant winner. On some “You mean MEEEEE?!?!?!” shit. He was a slightly bummy looking black dude in his early 30’s who was sitting in a fold out beach chair he had placed on the side of the street. Seemed harmless enough so I tossed him the ball. He stood up, dribbled it for 5 seconds and threw it back to me.
“Good looking out, nigga”
and that was that.
I remember walking towards the courts feeling like I was slightly different. Like i had passed a authenticity test or something. In hindsight, I was far from special as I imagine that guy is the type to call inanimate objects nigga but still, at that time, I was on cloud 9.

2)Mcdonalds
I don’t know if this will translate when written out but I’mma give it a shot.
I was about 19 and high as a person could be. My 4 friends and I had smoked a few blunts and were now floating around the city like the walking dead in search for any food we could stuff in our high mouths. We landed at a McDonalds…which was fine as I was 19 and ate that kinda shit like 4 times a week. High as hell, we all lined up and ordered food the only way high people do. Slowly and like complete fucking idiots. The girl behind the counter was a portly Puerto rican lady in her early 20’s who was obviously amused with the looming group of stoned white guys. We were actually chatting her up a bit and , seemingly, made a new friend. As the order came to a close , all our food was bagged up and ready to go when she said “Oh, Yall niggas want sauce?”
Again, we were SO high. As soon as that sentence came out of her mouth we all just kinda looked at each other like “did she really just refer to us as “niggas”?” That same excitement I felt when that dude in the lawn chair had said it to me was palpable in the room. This was followed by 5 stoned people trying to contain laughter while also trying to procure some of that delicious sauce she was offering. We politely accepted and got out of there as soon as possible so we could guffaw hysterically. To this day, any time I go into a McDonalds or am with any of those friends from that night, that sentence still runs through my head.

3) So puerto ricans can say it?
That was the thought i had the first time I heard a Puerto rican dude say “nigga” without flinching. It was in front of black dudes who didn’t flinch as well. I remember thinking “Why do they get a pass”? It’s safe to so that I was pretty young at the time and didn’t understand a lot of things.
That’s how I learned, in many cases, the people who use it aren’t always about race as they are about location. If you’re black and I’m dominican and we grew up in the same hood with the same friends using that word , it’s just gonna become a part of the vernacular. Teenaged me would have tried to rationalize that it’s wrong of them to say it but, really, who gives a shit? I would never want to take that gift away from the likes of Fat Joe and Beatnuts. And I’d say that same privilege extends to white dudes who grew up around minorities who used the word with great frequency. At least, from what I’ve seen it has.

4)The first time I heard a white dude say “Nigga”.

It’s slightly more common now to hear a white guy say that word. At least in certain circles. But 15 years ago, it wasn’t a thing white guys did. And if they did do it, they did it selectively and with an air of discomfort. Like they so desperately want to be down enough to say it but , deep down, in their hearts they know they probably shouldn’t be saying it.
Around 97/98, I met this dude. I don’t wanna say his real name, as we are still buddies, so let’s call him Bob. Upon first glance, Bob was a wigger of Danny Hoch proportions. Like he was a cartoon version of a wigger. Just being in a room with him, I heard him dropping “Nigga” a dozen times over the course of an hour. But he was doing it amongst a very racially mixed crowd with a comfort level I had never seen before. I had just seen him out a few times , as he was friends with some friends of mine but my initial reaction was that he was a clown.
Flash to a few weeks later and we’re actually hanging out. Turns out, he’s not only an intelligent guy but he’s also hilarious and genuinely good person. This blew my mind. He was a little younger than me but hearing a white guy shamelessly say “nigga” without pulling back was some next level shit. I didn’t really agree with it but I couldn’t help but admire his balls (pause).
Now whether you think it’s right or wrong for any white guy to throw that word around is on you. I certainly understand how that could rub all sorts of people the wrong way. But , much like the girl at McDonalds and the guy in the lawn chair, a lot of how we should accept words is in the intention of how they’re used. Basically, what I’m saying is that it’s okay to be offended by this kinda thing but don’t ever become one of those assholes who overlooks context and intent of how words are used. Bob meant no harm. It was just a word that got engrained in his vocabulary. For better or worse.

5)Overhearing people use the word “nigga” is the best Not to be confused with overhearing people use the word” Nigger” which is the worst…

These are a few things I’ve tweeted in the past after just overhearing people say thing literally like 5 feet from the door of my home:
“I love that I can walk 2 steps out of my building & overhear a guy call his friend an “easy bake oven ass nigga”. New York is the best.”

“Just overheard the sentence “yo, but this nigga DR. Phil got next though”. Trying to imagine a context where that statement makes sense.”

6)”Nigga” is anything
There are different levels of the way people use that word. Obviously WHO is using it is very important so let’s just assume, for these examples, I’m referring to non-whites using this word.
To some, it’s only used to get a point across like “You better give me back my game of thrones box set or there’s gonna be trouble, nigga!”
To others, it’s completely off limits.
But to others, it’s as engrained in their vocabulary as the word “Like” is for valley girls. It can be referring to a table “I banged my knee on that nigga the other day and it still hurts”. It can be referring to a female. Anyone who’s seen porn where the dude is calling the girl he’s fucking “nigga” can attest to that. However, my favorite of all is when it’s referring to animals. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a flock of sheep in europe and heard a dude say “look at all those niggas go…”. As offensive as this word can be to some people, to others it simply means anything. But, more directly, it means a person. I’ve been called a “white nigga” more times than I can count and , in all those situations, it wasn’t used negatively or positively. It was simply a description. As in, we’re playing basketball , I’m the only white guy and a guy on the other team tells his teammate to guard “that white nigga”. 16 year old me would be in heaven over the entire exchange but , in reality, it meant nothing. It’s just a word some people use. The only confusion about it, really, is who can and cannot use it. Clearly, I’m not the judge and jury for that case. No one person is. Thus, I suppose , it’s just on a person to person basis. But, whatever you do, always remember to never drop it with the hard “R”. I’m looking at you Mitt Romney.

35 thoughts on “The soft “a” is crucial

  1. Thanks for posting this. You’re not the only one to experience these things. I’m a wab from Southern California so our experiences are different but it all comes down to the same thing: our experiences with the word “nigga”. I personally have used it in a joking manner when talking to my husband (in the privacy of our own home), “Nigga, please” Stuff like that. Nothing to insult if you know what I mean. And of course in hip hop songs, too. You just kinda sing the lyrics. I also feel like the word “faggot” or “fag” is taken the wrong way sometimes, too. Should I be mad if a gay person uses the word “bitch” because I’m a woman? No. Some people are just too sensitive. I hope I’m not sounding ignorant but really, you’re right, it’s just WORDS people use. I think it all comes down to the WAY you use it.

  2. Nice tackling of a touchy subject. Personally, I could care less who says the word, whether in the positive or prejorative. We’re talking about a word here, so trying to ban it won’t work, and trying to possess it only results in indirectly calling yourself that (I’m black, btw). The only reason anyone of another ethnicity wouldn’t be offended by being called nigger (or any other racial epithet) is because they don’t feel they “possess” the word, so it means nothing. Well if context is everything, then shouldn’t that be the basis for offense? That’s why I say just let everyone in the world use it, and let no one possess it, then no one is offended.

    …But what the fuck do I know?

    • Well put and I agree 100%.
      To me, it all about HOW these words are used. There’s a huge difference between calling a gay person a “Faggot” and tripping over a squirrel and calling it a “Faggot”. I realize words like that carry a certain power and connotation to them but if the person using them isn’t using them in a way even remotely close to that connotation, the person getting offended is simply getting riled up over usage, as opposed to context.
      The thing is, as much as people have the right to say what they want to say, other people have the same right to be upset/offended by those things.
      I guess it all comes down to who people chose to surround themselves with.

  3. Great read on this and a good breakdown if u replace nigga with dude in all those examples u get the same thing. Like the sheep look at those dudes run al although the other way said is hilarious. Only difference is dude was never tied to or closley related to a racial term

  4. A while ago, I overheard a veritable ethnic rainbow of children playing outside calling each other “nigga” in place of actual names or pronouns. At first, I bristled, but then I realized that the word has a different meaning for them than it does for me, just as the meaning for our generation is different than those preceding. I hope I live to see the day that the U.S. Constitution is edited to read, “We the niggas of the United States of America…”

  5. It’s just like profanity… you can call someone a “motherfucker” in an amicable way or the same can be fighting words. You also don’t say “motherfucker” around your grandma or children (if you have any decency, at least). And just like with “nigga” the orignal sense of the word has been so diluted that no one actually intends for any mothers to get fucked… I don’t feel “nigga” is racist, only people are racist. Kinda like the whole “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” saying.
    Profanity and cultural vernacular are like that: loaded guns that could hurt people if used carelessly, yet with proper care and familiarity, are hella fun to bust off.

  6. Didn’t El-P drop the ‘soft a’ on that Juvenile Techniques 12″ from like 1994. Am I remembering right? In retrospect, it seems like a strange thing for a white rapper from that time period

  7. Can white people say “nigga” while part of an audience sing-along at a concert? Call me PC, but I always feel a little anxiety when an artist (rapper) wants the crowd to participate and I know it’s going to require me to shout the word “nigga”. Censor myself, or go for it… what is a white boy to do?

  8. I am white. In 1st grade i was beating up a hispanic kid at recess. after the fight was over he told me “imma get u after school nigga”. not knowing what think i just kinda walked away. later that day i told my teacher(also white) that this kid called me the n word, and she told me not to worry about it. i remember thinking that she shoulda did more but hey it was 1992. and thats my first n word moment. school ended at 245 that day and im still wait on dude to sucker punch with a group of his cousins!

  9. As a European (Croatian), I was always a bit stunned by the way the “n-word” was being used in everyday life (according to movies as well as stories from my friends who visited USA) as we know it only in the derogatory way (actual offense). This article explained some things to me (intention & who uses it).

    Funny enough, we also use the word “nigga” sometimes, but as a friendly gesture (My nigga, to begin with), funny as it may sound (some words from English language found their way into our everyday talk), but that is something you’ll say to a black guy only if you’re friends and such (and if he has a sense of humor). Otherwise, you do not use it at all.

    Regarding the word “nigger”, I did once hear it being used in a different context in the song “Woman is the nigger of the world” by John Lennon. It seemed quite clear to me that the intention was to say that women are being mistreated and opressed and all that and that he used the most derogatory word he could find and that really has an impact, but after a quick look at the youtube comments, it turned out that a lot of people simply didn’t get it and called Lennon a racist. So, it seems that the rule of context and intention failed with some folks.

  10. this is one of your funniest posts ever. and look at all the responses this time! i’m black (mixed) and for me this is really a non-issue, as long as it’s (as you said) in the right context. tribe explained it best, and you brought some much needed and well executed comic relief on the subject. “y’all niggas want some sauce?” will have me howlin’ for days.

  11. I was at work the other day, and I was talking about how I pay a lot of money in child support to my ex-wife, and my coworker, a white dude, says “I bet that nigga has new clothes every month”. That was the first time I imagined my three year old son as a “nigga”.

  12. I’m white and personally i don’t feel comfortable using the word in any form. The soft a version though is not a huge deal i guess, though i think it’s corny for a white guy from the suburbs to use it with any degree or regularity. The ‘er’ version i fucking hate with a passion. It reminds me of some white, racist, rage filled wife beating redneck wearing a white wife beater. I realize that is sort of prejudice to say in itself, but seriously, who the fuck uses the word in its er version who isn’t black that isn’t a POS? Just my opinion.

    That said, context and intention i agree are pretty much everything.

  13. I just realized something re-reading this… but if the word “nigga” is context based depending on cultural familiarity and acceptance… then the “soft A” shouldn’t matter. “Nigger please!”

    Actually I felt that way up until I just typed it… jeez that’s a powerful word.

  14. What about wigger? Why does that word get the er and it has become ok in popular culture? At its root is implies the same thing as the n-er.

    • I get how it could be taken as offensive cause of where it’s taken from but I fully support that word as it describes a type of person perfectly. I prefer to call them “whigz”, though.
      Like the other dangerous words, it’s all in how it’s used. I feel like the only people who get really mad at “wigger” are white people (at least , in my experience) and, really, fuck what easily offended white people think about words like that.

  15. Puerto Rico has a big population of black people, and a bigger share of “mulatos”, which means a whole bunch of light skin black descendants, that’s why they get to use the word too man, and dominicans even more, most of the population in DR is straight black… plus as you said, the social context and environment are of key importance too. Take the west coast for example were you’ll never hear a mexican use the “n” word, and the black dudes refer to them as “eses”. Part is because most mexicans are from indigenous/spanish descent, and not from black/mulato/spanish descent as in PR and DR.

  16. Pingback: could a white rapper ever reach a status like tupac ? - Future Producers forums

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