steve ivory (2014)

Steven Ivory

*There’s an old, facetious basketball adage that white men can’t jump. However, not only can white men jump, apparently they can be niggers, too.

Those uninitiated on the subject  learned this from University of Kentucky basketball player Andrew Harrison, a 20 year-old black man, during the April 4th press conference after Kentucky’s Final Four 71-64 loss (their first of the season) to the University of Wisconsin.

When a reporter asked Kentucky players about Wisconsin Badgers star power forward Frank Kaminsky, Harrison,  pained by his team’s loss, mumbled—but not low enough that a microphone didn’t catch it–“Fuck that nigga.”

The thing is, Kaminsky is white.

Minutes later, the comment sections of internet sports sites were ablaze with (presumably) white readers ranting that if a white player had uttered about a black player what Harrison said about Kaminsky, he would have been crucified as racist. They’re right.

However, those commenters didn’t grasp that while Harrison’s statement reflected poor sportsmanship and garden-variety bone headedness, race had nothing to do with it. His unfortunate quip is simply an example of the many ways nigger is used today.

Like a virus immune to all reasoning and common sense, nigger—used since the 17th century to express a venomous hate for blacks—has,  for decades, been a multi-purpose colloquialism kept alive globally by people of all races, nationalities and backgrounds who use the king of slurs in a medley of ways on a daily basis.

We all know about the hate usage. And we know about the imbecilic custom of blacks to use the word as a term of “affection.” However, there are those who use nigger to describe practically everything.

In the hands of these people, most of them black, nigger is applied to dogs (“That Doberman around the corner is a badd nigga”), parakeets (“That lil’ green nigga was chirpin’ his ass off”), God (“Jesus Christ is my nigga”), smartphones (“This nigga right here can do everything”), race horses (“Run, nigga, run…”), and, as Harrison so ineloquently illustrated, white people.

But I’ll bet you good money Harrison has also used nigger to address white teammates and friends in an “affectionate” manner, too.  When he spoke under his breath at that press conference,  nigger took the place of “knucklehead.” Or “asshole.” It just happened to be “nigga.”

The loony equal opportunity use of this word reminded me of a morning a couple of years back, when I visited my telecommunications carrier about a cell phone upgrade. The retail store in a metropolitan L.A. strip mall was empty but for the exceptionally polite, wiry early 20-something blonde man behind the counter wearing a crew cut, gray slacks, a white button down shirt and blue tie. I’ll call him Thomas.

When I asked about the mélange of old school R&B and vintage hip hop playing in the store, Thomas proudly took ownership. “That’s all my stuff,” he said, holding up his iPhone. “See? The store system is playing music from this.”

Where, I asked, had a young white cat discovered such a disparate selection of obscure Lenny Williams, Donny Hathaway, Geto Boys and Apache. “I’m from Philly. Back home I spent a lot of time in the ‘hood with friends who are way into old school. To me, the old shit is  best.”

I ended up spending about an hour in the store, with Thomas tutoring me on iPhone operation while we leisurely discussed music, pop culture and politics, during which time he occasionally slipped into urban slang.

In fact, Thomas sounded so versed in some aspects of the black experience that  at some point, while he searched the store’s computer for some info regarding my phone, I asked him: Thomas, have you ever used the N word?

“Yes sir. I have and I do,” he answered  rather introspectively,  never looking up from the monitor.

 Really. When and how does that happen?

“It happens with my black friends. They call me nigga, and I call them one.” He looked up.  My perplexed expression obviously instigated further explanation.

“It was a gradual thing,” he said. “They’d say it around me. I never said it because I didn’t want to. I knew better. But one day we were talking about chicks we went to school with, and one says to me,  ‘Oh, nigga, please, you know you was into that girl,’ or something like that.

“They’d call me nigga, but I STILL didn’t use it. Then one night we were out somewhere, and I forget how it happened, but I was given permission…a ‘You’re cool with us so you can say this,’ kind of thing. For me, it was the ultimate acceptance.”

Thomas insisted he only uses the word within his circle of black friends who are comfortable with his use of it.

“There are unspoken rules,” he said. “Like, I’d never use the word [with his black friends] where the general public can hear. Everybody ain’t down with a white dude  saying that. And it won’t come out of my mouth with my crew if friends or family of theirs that I don’t know are around.”

Aloud, I pondered the irony: a design of sensitivity required in using a word that is, among other things, the personification of insensitivity.   Thomas nodded. “Funny thing is, the same rules apply for white people who use it in a fucked up way around other white people.

“In other words, whites who use it negatively to describe Brothers won’t use it around white people who find it offensive. Yeah–black people probably wouldn’t believe this, but a lot of whites really don’t say this word; they find it offensive if other whites use it around them, too.”

I shared with Thomas my feelings about this ever controversial word, including my frustration with the fact that I’ve used it myself. “Well, it ain’t going anywhere,” he said.

Why would you say that?

“Because  YOU  use it,” said Thomas.   “Because a lot of people of all colors, one way or another, use this word. Look at hip hop. It’s the most popular music in the world and that word is used in almost all of it. Black kids, white kids—they’re all singing and rapping.   They want to be cool, and using that word is part of it. To most of  them,  it  doesn’t have the baggage it does for older people.”

He added: “I know white guys who use it way more than black people. They’re using it with whites, blacks, Latinos, whatever, in the ‘good’ way and the bad way, just like black people do.”

Andrew Harrison might not agree with what Thomas said that day—what black person wants to hear the opinion of a white person, no matter how well-meaning, on this heinous word?  But how Harrison used the word during that press conference all but co-signed Thomas’ outlooks.

All I know right now is that blacks and whites calling one another nigger signifies the end of one thing and the beginning of something else. What, I’m not entirely sure.

Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]