“Niggas,” in Practice
Jay-Z, Gwyneth Paltrow, and when white people can say the word.
In a funny and perceptive response to the Paltrow tweet, the video blogger and hip-hop commentator Jay Smooth called “Niggas in Paris” “a resisting-the-n-word endurance test for white people.” Different test-takers have employed different strategies. When Aziz Ansari, who’s friends with both MCs, and a friend posted an Emoji pictogram-transcription of the song online, they represented the word nigga with a smiling brown-haired white guy, perhaps reflecting the way niggas routinely functions in hip-hop as a synonym for people. When Katy Perry covered “Niggas in Paris” during a BBC television performance in March, she replaced the word nigga, which appears several times in the verses, with ninja. When I saw a video of Perry’s cover, I wondered what it would have meant if she had covered the song without this modification. It certainly would have been imprudent from a public-relations standpoint, and it may have run her afoul of broadcasting regulations. But would it have been, in a greater sense, wrong?
It feels strange to simply say no, but it also feels strange to simply say yes, because the rules that structure speech in a cover are knotty. (So are the rules that structure stand-up comedy, for that matter, which isn’t to say that Michael Richards didn’t deserve the censure that attended his onstage “nigger” rant in 2006, but that he did not deserve it a priori).
Some other questions raised by Katy Perry’s performance: How is a white pop star’s cover version of “Niggas in Paris” different from, say, a white nobody rapping along, in full, as the song blasts from her car stereo? What if she is alone, or with white friends, or if a black friend is in the car? Is she wrong then? Wrong is a slippery word in its own right, but, in assessing cases where white people say “nigga,” we acknowledge the utterance’s injurious power, and we stay on the lookout for a troubling blitheness on the part of the speaker that could reflect a broader, ill-considered attitude toward race.
There’s something else to mull in Paltrow’s tweet and Perry’s cover: the nagging sense that those asterisks, and that “ninja,” are a bit weaselly. The late African-American comedian Patrice O’Neal addressed this during an interview last year with Marc Maron, complaining that the phrase the n-word was “invented” so that white people could say the word nigger: a racism-abetting loophole. Louis C.K. has argued something similar in his act: “You say ‘the n-word’ and I go, ‘Oh, she means ‘nigger.’ You’re making me say it in my head!” The ostensible utility of the phrase the n-word, and similar fig leaves, is that a speaker can both avoid mouthing a poisonous phoneme and make clear that he is referring to the word nigger, but not using it. Why not just refer to it, without the proxy, and trust that listeners are sophisticated enough to tell the difference?
Abundant apprehensiveness about white people saying “nigger,” in any variation, regardless of context, is warranted. There is no possible utopian future in which racial injustice has been eradicated and white people can say “nigga” or “nigger” all day without any negative effects. This fantasy is, at root, nightmarish: The word nigger is a living monument to atrocity that we shouldn’t want to ever see eroded. An imaginary future where the word is free of its wounding potential wouldn’t be utopian at all, because it would entail historical amnesia.
At the same time, as C.K.’s bit helps to illustrate, we shouldn’t prohibit interesting engagements with a fraught word in the name of knee-jerk political correctness. Why is it so hard to imagine a (nonblack) musician today titling a song “Woman is the Nigger of the World,” as John Lennon and Yoko Ono did in 1972? The title is incendiary, but it would be silly to accuse Lennon and Ono of racism, at least without doing anything more than pointing at the presence of “nigger” in the title. We recognize the complex, critical way that the word functions in that formulation. Ditto when Todd Solondz, a white filmmaker, writes and shoots a bracing scene, in Storytelling, in which a black creative-writing professor tells a white college student to say “Nigger, fuck me hard” during rough, domineering sex. The scene is an elaborate gizmo of interlocking, contradictory power structures. Both of these cases, however provocative, reflect critical and productive reckonings with the word, and they point to a strange but compelling fact: It can be better for a white person to say “nigger” than not say it.
There are no straightforward answers or blanket truths available in this line of inquiry, except that anyone who purports to have them isn’t to be trusted. The word nigger sits at the center of innumerable tensions, abuses, and traumas, like a diamond perched within a vast latticework of laser beams. Brush up against just one, and the sirens wail. You wonder, in this light, if Jay-Z, Kanye, and “Niggas in Paris” producer Hit-Boy had more in mind than simply amping up listeners when they chose to drop a snippet of Will Ferrell dialogue from Blades of Glory into their song. “Nobody knows what it means, but it’s provocative,” Ferrell says. “Gets the people going.”
Jonah Weiner is Slate's pop critic.