Exporting the N-word

Navigating foreign lands is a big part of Coleman Collins' life as he pursues an overseas hoops career. Courtesy of Coleman Collins

Editor's note: This column contains language some readers might find offensive.

The first time that a person who wasn't black used the word "nigga" to address me face-to-face came when I was out of the country. I was playing basketball for a team in a small, largely Croatian village in Bosnia-Herzegovina. I was walking down the street when I passed three adolescent boys going in the other direction on the opposite side. They were visibly excited to come across a black person in the flesh and called out to me: "Hey man, what's up? Hey, my nigga, how you do?" I didn't respond. I didn't know how to respond. I kept walking, feeling my ears burn and my jaw tighten. In my mind I saw images of barking dogs. The rest of the walk home was a blur. When I had cooled down, I wondered: Were they really trying to insult me? Or had their exposure to black culture led them to believe that this was how I'd like to be greeted?

There are generally four schools of thought on the word "nigga." There's the first and largest group -- black working-class (but not exclusively so) people who say it casually because it's what they've always done, or simply because they don't like being told what to do. There's the small but vocal group of middle-class black intellectuals who claim to have "reclaimed" the word, to have turned it into a term of endearment instead of a tool of oppression. It's a neat solution to a messy problem. It ends in "A," after all! This line of thinking is what led us to where Kanye West is currently -- "re-contextualizing" Confederate flags as tour merch. This last seems idiotic at first blush but might yet be proven to be genius. It's too early to talk about it with any sort of nuance, but it's a good marker of the extreme left of the dialogue.

The third group is comprised of the "respectable Negroes," the bootstrap types, the "don't you embarrass me in front of these white folks" crowd. Also largely middle- and upper-middle class, the worst of these would have us believe that if black men only pulled their pants up, stopped littering and stopped calling each other that word, racism and poverty would come to an end.

Last but certainly not least you have the extremely sympathetic older generation that worked to have the word eradicated from white people's vocabularies only to find it shouted from street corners and blasted from car windows in the future they worked so hard for. Carried to the extreme, it's best represented by the NAACP, which literally attempted to bury the word "nigga" in a well-intentioned but ultimately irrelevant funeral in 2007.

As I've played and traveled in various countries around the world, I've often been in situations with another person or their family and realized that this was their very first time meeting a person with skin like mine, shaking his or her hand or breaking bread over the dinner table. It is a strange weight to go from "representing your race" to Representing Your Race, but certainly bearable.

Our academics would have us believe that the word is fine when in context, used without malice as a term of endearment. It's a simple equation in the U.S. Racism = prejudice + power. "White people" are excluded from using it because of their forefather's complicity in the slave trade and subsequent years of oppression. The paleness of their skin serves as prima facie evidence of their inability to use the word.

But where did the boys from Bosnia-Herzegovina fit in? They used it as a greeting. They were not a threat to me or my well-being. They didn't represent any white-power structure -- their country never had any slaves or colonies, and furthermore you'd be hard pressed to find any point in the past 100 or so years when the average Slav was better off from a material standpoint then a black American. If the word's power comes not from any intrinsic value but from the power structures behind it, why was I so angry?

As I've played and traveled in various countries around the world, I've often been in situations with another person or their family and realized that this was their very first time meeting a person with skin like mine, shaking his or her hand or breaking bread over the dinner table. It is a strange weight to go from "representing your race" to Representing Your Race, but certainly bearable. I've been unusually fortunate. For various socioeconomic reasons and sheer lack of numbers, very few African-Americans leave the United States. The percentage of Americans with passports is reported to be anywhere from 10 to 30 percent. Black passport ownership is believed to be some fraction of this. This means that for the vast majority of the world, the first (and likely only) exposure to African-American culture they will have in their lifetimes is through the Internet. Sports highlights, YouTube clips, memes. These people are receiving all of this without the framework that undergirds every interracial interaction in the U.S. This is not to say our rules are impossible to ascertain, but it makes it very, very difficult.

Highlights, music videos, memes. There is a very popular meme among black people that is occasionally funny, generally depressing and seemingly never-ending. It's called "Niggas Be Like." An example: A picture of a Stevie Wonder with the caption "NIGGAS BE LIKE: 'I'LL PAY YOU BACK NEXT TIME I SEE YOU.'" There are thousands of these on the Internet. You could easily copy and paste some of them on to a white supremacist site without anyone noticing; the conspiracy theorist in me wants to believe that's who keeps coming up with them. But the good ones are the sort of in-joke that has come to be understood as OK within cultures.

The first time I saw one of these, it had been posted by a former teammate of mine. The second person I saw repost one was a white girl. She was German, was dating an African-American soldier, felt like she had been given a pass. I know her personally, know she isn't racist. She is someone who wants to belong, and for whatever reason, the "pass" is seen as the ultimate sign that you're in. It actually is the natural extension of the tortured logic of that second school of thought -- if the word is now a term of love, of endearment, then a white person who can say that word without consequence is loved beyond any other. It would be, it must be, the pinnacle of white cool.

So who gets a pass? Most people, myself included, would argue that people with a black parent are fine. It didn't anger me when I heard that Matt Barnes used it. Conversely, I was dismayed to hear that Richie Incognito used it openly and often, but I know how locker rooms work. All it takes is one black guy to say, "Come on, man, you can say it, you know you my nigga" and all hell breaks loose. It's like a gun ban or a tax increase -- not feasible in a world of people with differing standards.

I've been in locker rooms where European players used it nonchalantly around black players, mostly when singing along to song lyrics. Occasionally, I'd pull someone aside and ask them to stop. This was mostly greeted with a look of confusion, an unanswerable question ("But why do you guys say it so much if it's such a terrible word?") and, finally, acceptance and an agreement not to do it again.

Outside of that basic, American, black/white binary, the lines are hard to define. What about Puerto Ricans and Dominicans? Africans? Indians? Last year during a casual conversation, a half-Malian, half-French teammate told me, "Nigga, quit lying!" I asked him not to call me that, please. He was genuinely hurt. "What, I'm not black enough to say that? I don't count?" It dawned on me that it wasn't just his attempt at speaking my language -- it was an expression of solidarity. It was an assertion of blackness. He was placing his flag on the ground. I told him that it had nothing to do with being black enough, or that he somehow hadn't earned the right. It was just simply that I'd prefer to be called something else.

That's the best way to describe how I feel. I'd prefer to be called something else. Call me by name. I try to express this quietly. I'm not interested in shaming anyone, so if I don't have the opportunity to say something privately, I won't say anything at all. I think it can be addressed only on an individual level. Personally, I make an effort not to use it, but I reject the notion that it makes me a better person. It's what works for me. I would prefer not to be called that by anyone, but I understand why certain black people do it. Everyone's experience is different. I grew up fairly privileged, in a family in which I never heard the word uttered. I can't be certain that they never said it privately, but my parents made an effort to set the example for me that it wasn't appropriate. I knew without asking or ever broaching the subject. My mother would even balk at a description of another person as "dark-skinned" or "light-skinned." She'd ask, "Isn't there a better way you can describe that person?" I was never truly in the habit of saying "nigga," it was just something I did as a teenager because that's what other kids did. This made it easy for me to give it up. I can't judge other people who have a stronger attachment to it.

Though I dislike the word, what I dislike even more is people moralizing as if poverty, discrimination and institutional racism are the proper rewards for a few slips of the tongue. These critiques are almost always classist and sometimes explicitly so, with privileged people bemoaning a "lack of class" or a "bad upbringing." This sort of asinine scolding only serves to derail the conversation. They lead to people equating words with weapons. It can never be said enough: The tools of enslavement were not words. The tools of enslavement were guns and ships and limited liability companies. Slavery doesn't start with you calling me a nigger instead of sir; it starts when you have a gun and I have a sharpened stick. And it ends not with dictionaries or thesauruses, but with you putting down the gun. It's the age-old swindle of I'll respect you when. "I'll respect you when you pull up your pants, when you stop talking like that, when you cut that hair." For women, it comes as "I'll respect you when you cover your hair. Your midriff. Your knees. Your ankles. Your face." This is a con game, and I sympathize with those who refuse to play it.

Still, I don't know what to say to the older generation. It must be a particular sort of hell to strain against oppression, toe the line cautiously for decades, only to see young black men make millions from rhyming "niggerish" with "nigga-rich." It's unfortunate but feels too late to interdict. The horse has bolted and galloped around the world, and they would have us lock the barn door from the inside.

This is, of course, impossible. The only way I see forward is a sort of live-and-let-live approach. For white people, I would still advise extreme caution. Please spare us your anecdotes about your noble black maid, your "I know my opinion doesn't mean anything, but gosh it makes me uncomfortable" op-eds. And please don't say it. This is hypocritical on its face; of course you have the right to say whatever you want. I know, I know, First Amendment. I even sort of understand the appeal. It's taboo, and everyone wants to get behind locked doors. I just think that this thing, this one thing and virtually nothing else in society, is something you probably shouldn't have. There are probably many younger people who disagree with me; I've heard that teenagers across the country of all races use it indiscriminately without anger. That would have been absolutely unthinkable to me only 10 years ago, but now it doesn't seem impossible. It could be that the future lies in nothing being off-limits to anyone. The world as an unrestrained, post-racial locker room.

Until it comes, we can only police ourselves and the areas around us. Sweep your own doorstep. I expect to be offended. I expect that I'll have to get used to it. The price we pay for modernity is always the discomfort of the old folks with some new aspect of it. I guess I'm getting old, too.

Since graduating from Virginia Tech, Coleman Collins has played professional basketball in Europe and the D-League, after a brief stint with the Phoenix Suns. Currently, he's the starting power forward for the Ukrainian team Azovmash. He's also a semi-regular TrueHoop contributor.