Who is the Nigger?

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White Supremacists beat a black man in a garage in Charlottesville

I didn’t want to write this piece. I’m not a fan of clickbait, and I don’t have enough time or cultural capital for any blowback that might ensue behind writing a piece like this. Everything in me even now says that I shouldn’t publish it. I have too much riding for me.

But I couldn’t sit by and watch what happened in Charlottesville and not speak out. Based upon both the events in Charlottesville and the president’s response to said events, I’ve come to the only conclusion I could: the president and his followers are niggers. Or at least they’re acting like niggers.

I don’t mean this in a Larry Wilmore, “you did it, my nigga” kind of way. And yes, I’m one of those folks who makes a Derridean distinction between “nigger” and “nigga.” As Derrida told us — so… many… times… — language is slippery, and the meanings of words, phrases, sentences, and even whole paragraphs and books are subject to play and multiple meanings. To make a distinction between “nigger” and “nigga,” then, is to play with language, to use language (for better or worse) in ways that usurp original meanings.

When I call the president and his followers niggers, I mean it in a solely descriptive fashion. This piece is about meaning, but it’s not about the difference between “nigger” and “nigga.” It’s about the slippery meaning of the word “nigger”: while this term is still used as a slur toward non-white people, I think it also describes the president and his white supremacist followers. People will undoubtedly not read to the end of this piece, and I will certainly catch hell for this. But, honestly, I’m not sure how long I can keep my mouth shut about what’s happening, so here goes.


Many black folk have had the unfortunate experience of being called a nigger. Nowadays, this usually happens in a space where retaliation is either dangerous or impossible: some white person — almost always a man — is pissed because he couldn’t get his way, and all of a sudden, the first black person he sees becomes the target of all of his ire. Add to nigger the term “bitch,” and you’ve got the perfect rhetorical encapsulation of misogynoir. To be a black person and to get called a nigger in the US is almost — almost — akin to gaining one’s citizenship papers; you aren’t really American until it happens. It’s so commonplace that many of us don’t even flinch anymore. We might get pissed, but it’s just part of living in this country. The cost of citizenship, I guess.

I find the word nigger quite interesting; I wrote a paper on it in grad school, but I can’t remember what I argued. I do remember researching the history of the word, and finding that its etymology comes straight from European words for “black”: negré, negro, etc. The term was developed solely for people whose skin was — and is — black, and its first uses (I think its earliest use was in 1608) were more descriptive than pejorative. Black people had black skin, and eventually negré and negro became “nigger,” which was eventually used to describe this phenotypical blackness.

The problem with this history, though, is that “blackness” itself has always symbolized negative things. Ask a kid what the color white symbolizes, and you’ll get a considerably large range of more or less positive meanings: good, beautiful, pure, etc. Ask the same kid what black symbolizes, and you get the opposite: bad, dirty, sinful, wrong, etc. In other words, the term “nigger” was never purely descriptive. Already attached to the ugly sinfulness that is blackness, nigger had racism built into its very semantic structure.

Over time, though, the term became heavier with the weight of more vicious and violent forms of racism. Not content with simply describing the ugliness, it became a term of severe disrespect and hostility. It came to symbolize everything from savagery to laziness; it spoke to a lack of intellect, and invoked a sense of pure unconscious drives.

To be a nigger was to be a savage, violent, unthinking brute whose existence was something like a zombie with sexual drives. Inferior to whites, niggers were the bane of white existence; they raped, pillaged, beat, and in some cases, even ate white people. To be a nigger was and is to be the very embodiment of everything that white people feared and continue to fear.

However, after reflecting on the history of this country — and especially after what happened in Charlottesville — I found myself wondering, like James Baldwin did, who is the nigger? And I’ve concluded that white supremacists like the president and the folks in Charlottesville are niggers.


Many of you might be familiar with the following video. If you haven’t seen it, I think it’s worth watching.

What is so interesting about this video is that this is James Baldwin. This is the writer whose words are always dripping with love. His words thirst for connection; they attempt to expose and deepen the inextricable bonds we can, should, and do have with one another. Baldwin may not have loved America, but his writings speak to a compassionate love — even for white people — that will bring you to tears.

So when he looks directly into the camera and says, “you’re the nigger, baby, it isn’t me,” it feels… uncharacteristic. Baldwin loves people, and calling white people niggers seems completely out of pocket — until you realize he’s not saying it out of hatred or anger. He’s describing the world as he sees it.


For the first few minutes, Baldwin is not looking at the camera. Seemingly looking at a group of people, he tells his audience that when a person has a “problem,” it’s their problem — such that when a person calls another person a problem, they’re really talking about themselves. The “nigger,” then, is a projection, an affective and psychological caricature mis/placed on to black people in order to assuage one’s own savage, dangerous, shiftless, and lazy impulses.

I’m not cooking this up. A while back, a historian named Winthrop Jordan wrote a 600+ page book called White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro. In all 600+ pages, Jordan’s point was quite simple: the caricatures, stereotypes, fears, anxieties, and worries whites developed about black people were of their own making.

It’s reasonable to conclude from Jordan’s work that the nigger — this catch-all phrase denoting all things violent, bad, unproductive, criminal, and hypersexual — was never a black person. The source of the nigger’s existence has always been a white person, because the nigger is a projection made by white people. If the nigger is a person who exemplifies unthinking and violent criminality, then we need only look at the historical record to substantiate this:

  1. White slaveholders raped black women.
  2. White men destroyed property (the Tea Party was nothing but a destruction of property), and therefore committed criminal acts. There are many more — genocide, rape, murder, theft — but this is one of the most famous ones.
  3. White people stole people and resources from other continents through violence — more criminality.
  4. And nothing is lazier than a white person sitting on his ass watching a group of black people till his soil and make him money.

And these are just historical examples: Donald Trump is the epitome of unthinking laziness, violence, and rape. Let’s refresh ourselves:

  1. He struggles to put together full, thought-out sentences, and he cannot distinguish accuracy from fiction. (He thought Frederick Douglass was still alive, and when he was exposed for not knowing what the Congressional Black Caucus was, he asked a reporter, April Ryan, to set up a meeting.) This is evidence of either his inability or unwillingness to think.
  2. He has played more golf in the first 7 months of his presidency than Barack Obama did throughout his entire two terms. If this isn’t laziness, I don’t know what is — and spare me the “working golfer” motif; as Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in his podcast about golf, there is an inverse correlation between a CEOs productivity and how much he (it’s always a he) plays golf. The more one plays golf, the less one gets done. The man is lazy as hell.
  3. He continued to stoke all forms of violence during and after his presidential campaign.
  4. And we need not even return to the Access Hollywood tapes or the accusations of rape.

If the nigger is intellectually inferior, prone to lustful acts of sexual violence, lazy as hell, and predisposed to physical forms of violence, then Donald Trump fits the bill.


Trump is not alone: if Charlottesville taught us anything at all about whiteness, it taught us that there are a host of white niggers walking around, intellectually inferior, ready for a fight, and prone to all forms of violence and theft. If Donald Trump is a nigger, then all the folks who supported and continue to support him are niggers, too. Let’s think through this together, shall we?

  1. our current education system is premised upon rote memorization and simplistic approaches to history. Despite the advances we’ve made in technology, many of our students struggle with reading comprehension and critical thinking skills. If this is the case, it is no surprise that many of these folks at Charlottesville think they’re losing something. They don’t know any better because they’ve never been taught anything better.
  2. Because they don’t know any better, many of these folks grow up only reading things that they can make sense of. And nothing — nothing — makes more sense than someone telling you you’re the best and people are trying to take that away from you. #MAGA was powerful because it appealed to the basest and least intellectually stimulating impulses of white people. What it didn’t tell these folks is that they were never on the top. Many of these white working-class supremacists have always been on the bottom, oppressed not by people of color and immigrants, but by other white people. But because our education system fails people at every turn, they don’t know better. This is intellectual inferiority.
  3. Intellectual inferiority breeds emotional immaturity. Young children lash out when they don’t get what they want or what they think they deserve. Throwing a tantrum as a child is certainly violent; but it is understood as part of the developmental process. Throwing a tantrum as an adult is not only violent; it speaks to arrested development, and produces incidents like Charlottesville, where people drive cars into crowds, and crowds of white men beat black men for no reason (see the picture above).
  4. Dylann Roof killed 9 people in a church because they were “raping our women.” This kind of delusional thinking is only made possible when a person has already bought into a form of thinking that is sexually violent at its core. To assume that white women need protection from white men is to assume a form of patriarchy that makes white women the property of white men. This is already sexually violent, and — as Donald Trump showed us in his comments on that bus — it is one short step away from more explicit forms of sexual violence.

Due to a host of structural issues, these white supremacists end up living in echo chambers of the worst kind; they end up thinking that their existence can only be maintained by destroying the possibilities and freedoms of others. Cornel West calls this “niggerization”:

Niggerization is neither simply the dishonoring and devaluing of black people nor solely the economic exploitation and political disenfranchisement of them. It is also the wholesale attempt to impede democratization — to turn potential citizens into intimidated, fearful, and helpless subjects.

The result is intellectually narrow, emotionally stunted, rapaciously violent white men who think a mythical group of people are “replacing” them — despite all evidence to the contrary. Niggerization was started when white men fought for freedom while embracing chattel slavery.

It was continued when white men built a “land of freedom and opportunity” through the merciless genocide of indigenous peoples.

It matured when, after emancipation, white lawmakers developed convict leasing and legal segregation to keep the races separate but not equal.

It lived on through the development of Japanese internment camps, destroying the dignity and humanity of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

It survived through wars on drugs and fears about illegal immigration.

And it lives on today through a pervasive sentiment that a land that white people stole is somehow theirs and theirs alone to keep. Breathing through the lie of white Americanness, niggerization perpetuates violence and terrorizes people of color in this country with little to no impunity. To be a nigger in this context, then, is to wholly embrace a broken logic wherein the only legitimate forms of violence, thought, and politics are the ones created and brokered by white people.

So when James Baldwin said, “you’re the nigger, baby, it isn’t me,” he wasn’t angry (although I think he was, like me, always filled with a perpetual rage). He wasn’t hateful, and neither was he disparaging white people. He was simply describing what he saw.


If you’re still with me — and I doubt you are, but if you’re still here — I must ask you: how does this piece make you feel? What does this piece erupt in you? If it erupts feelings of anger, resentment, and disappointment toward me personally, then you’ve gotten my point. Nobody wants to be called a nigger. And yet, on a daily basis, black people are called niggers in explicit and implicit ways.

We’re killed in the streets by cops — like niggers.

We’re disparaged when we burn property down out of righteous indignation — like niggers.

Our lives are scrutinized for the slightest evidence of wrongdoing — like niggers.

Despite the fact that most violence happens within communities, black-on-black violence is the one that is most highlighted — we’re niggers.

Denied access to make a case for ourselves, we’re denied the very possibility of reason — like niggers.

The criminal justice system puts us in jail before we’ve been convicted of crimes — like niggers.

We’re beaten mercilessly in parking garages — like niggers.

And when we stand up to get rid of symbols that represent our dehumanization, we’re met with mob violence and tiki torches — like niggers.

If I angered or upset you with this piece; if you think my reasoning is off; if you think my thinking or my words are out of line, my only plea is this: take a step back and reflect on what it must be like for someone like me.

Because when you finish reading this post, you won’t have to be a nigger anymore.

Unless you’re black.

Be well, Beloveds.