On the Symbolic Power of “Nigga”

Chester Hanks (aka “Chet Haze”), son of Tom and semi-pro rapper, made news recently with a strident defense of his right, as a white hip-hop fan, to say the word “nigga.” His argument is basically that this word is a integral part of hip-hop culture, often signifying “camaraderie and love.”  Whether you agree or not, it’s clear that Haze has a deep emotional connection to this term. As someone who studies language for a living, I’m well aware of the problems associated with (mis)appropriation and license. Still, I think it’s useful to take a closer look at what feeds this connection.

Though its origin is almost certainly apocryphal, there’s a distinction floating around online, supposed made by Tupac, between the meaning of the words “nigger” and “nigga.” The former, Tupac says, is a black man with “a slavery chain” around his neck. The latter is a black man with a gold chain around his neck. This distinction, I think, neatly encapsulates the affective power inherent in the word “nigga.” This word implies a certain movement—from oppression to self-expression, from poverty to wealth, from weakness to power. It represents the speaker seizing control of the way he or she (but usually he) is defined. In short, there’s symbolic agency inherent in this word. In light of that, we can see why some outside the black community are so eager to appropriate it.

As Haze indicates, there’s also a sense of soldiery—both racial and economic—implied by the term. In saying, “my nigga” or “niggaz like us,” one is basically saying something along the lines of “fellow resistance fighters.” I know of no other English term that has the same semantic resonance.

So could this term become widespread among white language users without losing its power? I don’t know. At the least I suspect its force would be diluted. This is perhaps one reason why many African Americans are so adamantly opposed to what seems like benign white appropriation. Mindful of this, perhaps it’s best that Mr. Haze take Ben Westoff‘s advice and start using “ninja” instead.

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