The first time I said the slang version of the n-word when I was 10, my cousin told me not to use it. But it was the thing to do because everyone around me was saying it. I would be at the mall or walking somewhere and I would see someone I knew and say “what’s up my n—ga.” I felt tough.
When I saw on the news late last year that actor Michael Richards was at The Laugh Factory and he repeatedly said the n-word when two black people booed him, I thought, “What a racist jerk.” I was shocked because as Kramer on Seinfeld he didn’t seem like that type of person. He said “50 years ago we’d have you upside down …” That’s like a slap in the face to all blacks. It made me feel disrespected.
Most of the time blacks get upset when someone who is not black uses any form of the n-word. They feel that the person who said it does not have the right because either they were trying to be disrespectful or they have not walked in a black person’s shoes so they shouldn’t say the word. I don’t even know all that my ancestors went through. But I know what it’s like to be black, what it’s like to be in my skin. Some people don’t understand how hard it is, how people look at you and assume you’re a gangbanger or you steal. Because of that, I felt I had the right to use that word.
Where I grew up in Los Angeles, everywhere I turn it’s “n—ga.” But we don’t use the word disrespectfully. By changing the spelling we mean it as “what’s up?” I never thought about how negative the word was. I knew the n-word ending in -er was a putdown but if it had a -ga at the end then it was OK with me. I thought they were two different words.
A hateful history
Before the civil rights movement, white people would use the word all the time in a derogatory way. Back then, blacks and whites couldn’t go to the same schools or use the same restrooms. Blacks could not sit in the front of the bus and if a white person wanted to sit down, a black person had to get up. Black people even had to get off the bus after they paid their money and walk to the back of the bus. That blacks had to go through this just to get where they are makes me mad. It should not have taken so much protesting for blacks to get civil rights. But as blacks got more rights and whites and blacks started to get along better, the word was used less.
That’s why it was very surprising when Richards said the n-word. Later he said that he was not racist and that he was just in character, but I felt that he was lying just to make everything calm down. He should have walked off the stage when they taunted him instead of exploding.
The next day, everyone was talking about it, kids and teachers at school and people on the bus. I started to think about the word. I noticed that when a black person said the word over and over, it started to get on my nerves. I thought about how it’s a putdown toward my ancestors. If blacks continue using it, that gives people who aren’t black the impression that it’s OK to use it.
A few days later, Jesse Jackson called for a boycott of the word. I think a boycott is too extreme. Be realistic. People are going to continue using it. When comedian Damon Wayans was at The Laugh Factory, he said that if he used the n-word, the comedy club was going to fine him. So every time he used the word he threw money out on the stage. I thought it was funny the way he was proving his point that no one could stop comedians from saying the word. His main point was that everyone has freedom of speech.
I knew that I would not be able to stop using it altogether because I was used to saying it, but I decided to use it less. Now I say, “what’s up” to my friends and then their name, like “What’s up, Devon?” Just to be funny I might say, “What’s up, my brother from another mother?”
I have used it less, but it’s hard. When I get around my friends I forget because they say it and it gets inside my head. I don’t even notice when I’m using it. The word just slips out. The other day I was upset at someone and he said he’d fight me and I got mad. I kept referring to him as that “n—ga.” Afterwards when I calmed myself down I realized how many times I said it.
Over time I hope to use it even less because I’m trying to make a positive change in myself. I’m being more respectful of my culture and the people who fought for blacks to have rights, like Martin Luther King Jr.
I’m taking steps, but I don’t tell my friends they shouldn’t say the n-word. They’d say, “We’re not white, we have the right to use the word.” I know I can’t control anybody’s mouth. I just want to get my voice out there and let others know how I feel. I hope that people who read this will think twice about using it.
“I really don’t care. It’s just how you say it. Some people use it to be derogatory. Some people say it as [part of] everyday conversation. I have a white friend who says it. I don’t care because it’s like they’re black. They’re not meaning it in a derogatory way.”
Martinique Usher, 19, El Camino Real College
“I don’t like the word myself. There’s no reason [to say it]. I wouldn’t talk to my boss like that. I don’t see it getting you anywhere.”
Darius Stone, 16, View Park Prep
“It depends on how they sound when they say it. When one of my friends says it, I know they are just playing around. If a stranger says it, I would get angry and be upset with whoever said it.”
Jo’Visha McGee, 13, Audubon MS
“The n-word is very offensive to me in some ways because it makes me feel like they don’t care about what black people had to go through for our freedom.”
Jahselyn Williams, 14, Dorsey HS