Great moments in socio-linguistic fieldwork

Posted by in: Anecdotal, Language

One of the things that took getting used to when I – a white, liberal Canadian raised to think that the word “nigger” was the very worst word in the entire world – moved to NYC was hearing people use the word “nigga” in casual conversation. As we’ve moved from a more Hispanic part of Brooklyn to a more black part (the R to the F to the Q), I’ve heard this even more. Anyway, like a lot of confused white people trying to figure it all out, I’ve noticed interesting shifts in usage over time. From being a linguistic in-group marker, especially as a form of address, the term “nigga,” seems to have come to often mean simply “person.”

It’s only a single data point, but I thought my experience in the gym today was interesting. Two young black men were looking for adjacent machines, and I was on the middle of three stairmasters. I heard one say to the other, “Hold up, let’s wait for this nigga to finish with his machine.” Since I like the middle of the three stairmasters much more than the other two and was in the middle of my workout, I turned around and told them I would be twenty more minutes. They thanked me and moved on. I’m pretty sure that they weren’t being sarcastic or condescending; it was just a way of referring to me.

Now. It seems to me that the day that two young black men refer to a badly dressed lily-white dork who’s listening on his mp3 player* to . . . no, I can’t bear to tell you what I was listening to. Besides, it’s important to group blog morale that, as Scallywag-in-Chief, I maintain a dignified image. Anyway, I think it’s safe to say that the day that I’m a “nigga” is a day when the term can no longer be functioning exclusively as a linguistic in-group marker (though obviously the term was being used by members of the relevant in-group).

It seems to me that we’re in an interesting grey zone here. On the one hand, as the word inevitably loses its bite, it becomes increasingly indiscriminately deployed. On the other hand, it’s pretty obvious that it still has the power to offend, and that should hardly surprise us either. It’s still really annoying – and I expect it to continue to be really annoying for quite some time – for some asshole white guy to try to excuse the fact that he’s offended people by pedantically pointing to the difference between “nigger” and “nigga.” If the first thirty seconds I watched of this video are anything to go on, this guy, for example, is clearly a complete fuckwit.

Anyway, writing about the gym reminds me of something I really like about the workout machines: they’re almost impossible to fall off of. By impossible, of course, I mean “only two or three times in my life,” the latest such incident being today.

* Of course they couldn’t hear what I was listening to, but it’s all part of the vibe.