The ‘N’ Word and America

By George Ploss

At its annual convention in Detroit on Monday, the NAACP symbolically buried the ‘N’ word. This event, part of a series of workshops and forums that will run through Thursday, attracted hundreds of people from around the country. In 1944, the NAACP had a similar ceremony to bury Jim Crow, a systematic, institutional form of racism, but the word ‘nigger’ is a little different and the ceremony itself was just outright insincere.

It was a PR stunt. A superficial, public relations photo shoot for the Democratic presidential candidates and the NAACP. Don’t get me wrong, I hate the word but I’m also not going to lie and say that I don’t use it. I think it should stop being used, but you can’t “bury” a cultural problem in the same sense that you can’t declare war on a noun.

Growing up, we used the word nigger, sparingly and specifically. Now, it can be confusing, even for us black folk, referring to our brethren as that or the opposite, referring to those whom we dislike as people acting like ‘niggers.’ When I got into trouble, my great-grandmother and grandmother would tell me, especially in church, to stop acting like a ‘nigger.’

In retrospect, it was a brilliant use of the word because my child rearing separated me from the word and all its negative connotations, so when people would say, “What’s up, my nigger,” I would look at them and sometimes say “I’m not a nigger,” and retort “What’s up, brother.” I was formulated into something that I never wanted to be; not an attempt to gain white acceptance for my behavior, but rather to establish my identity as an African-American man.

Although however brilliantly it was used, it was also wrong and for many reasons.

One, it strengthened the divide between the upper-class and lower-class blacks. Nigger is used with a raw acceptance in a lot of lower-income African-American communities. Ironically, this identity affair with the word is used for us to understand that at the end of the day, we are all still ‘niggers,’ i.e. racism still exists.

To a well-to-do black family that lives in an all-white suburb, there is almost no identity with the word because niggers are what they are not, as they see it. Conversely, black folk from a lower income demographic would call them that because they would see no separation between themselves and a country-clubbing, republican-voting black family.

However, they would be called bourgeoisie or ‘bourgie niggers’ because of how a lot of upper-income black people separate themselves from lower-income black people. The infra-racial complex has mostly to do with money and education. In short, the word not only insults us when used, but puts another pillar of support under the structure that divides many African-Americans from themselves.

My criticism with the NAACP’s ceremony is that it is not spearheading national dialogue of the use of the word, its extinction and the phenomena that it continues to induce. It is not in the public eye, talking to rappers, BET, MTV and record executives.

I fear that the NAACP isn’t going about attacking issues that matter because it cares more about its image than the reconciliation of racialism in this country. I pray that I’m wrong. One Love.

Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part column that will conclude next week.