This week in Slate, Jonah Weiner writes about Gwyneth Paltrow’s tweet to the world that she was hanging with “N****s in Paris, for real,” while watching the concert of her friends, Jay-Z and Kanye West. That tweet, of course, alludes to the two rappers’ hit single, and the actress appears to have meant no harm in her remarks. Not surprisingly, that casual attempt to show off her hip, lavish lifestyle did not go over well with some observers—though several rappers, all of them black, have given her a pass (some of them more ridiculously than others).
While Weiner contemplates the case of whether white people should ever be able to use the word, the faux controversy highlights a larger problem: Whether anyone, including black people, should use the word so freely.
Like Weiner, I have been perplexed—and rendered uncomfortable—by the open use of the word by white people. I blame Kanye West for making me nervous every time I’m at a party or a bar and “Gold Digger” comes on, wondering which white people are going to censor themselves during the chorus or not, and whether it’s worth it for me to say anything if they don’t. At a concert at my predominantly white alma mater, Kanye himself performed the song and called out to the crowd: “White people, this is the only time you can say the word ‘nigga’!” Of course, many of my white classmates relished this opportunity, much as Weiner describes his experience at a Lil Wayne show. Many of my black classmates, on the other hand, were not so happy about it.
Some of these same black classmates used the word in their own daily lives quite liberally. Does using it in an “affectionate” manner vary that much when coming from a black person as opposed to a white person? After all the reclaiming, re-appropriation, and reframing, how much has the meaning of the word really changed?
“We have invented the nigger. I didn’t invent it. White people invented it.” So said James Baldwin in 1963—adding that he had always known “that what you were describing was not me and what you were afraid of was not me.” This, of course, was a time when blacks were called “nigger” on a daily basis by whites. When the Black Power movement became ascendant, the word’s subversive use rose to prominence, and Blaxploitation flicks and soul music gave us a new version of the word: “nigga.” (“I’m your momma/I’m your daddy/I’m that nigga in the alley.”)
Now, of course, it’s everywhere: in graffiti, in casual conversation among young black kids, in the repertoires of black comedians, and, of course, in rap. But this new “nigga” is just the old “nigger” wrapped in faux empowerment. If the meaning has really changed, why does it matter when someone like Paltrow uses the word, with no vitriol attached?
The use of the word by black folks is just as telling. I have not, and never will, consider myself a “nigger” or a “nigga” or any other form of the word. And Paltrow’s misstep is merely a blip on the radar of pop cultural ignorance. (I’m inclined to agree with Kristen West Savali, who has said that many people are “crying wolf” over the incident.) But I hope her faux pas doesn’t only prompt white people to ask themselves how OK it is to use the word. The rest of us need to keep asking that question as well.