That Time Lyft Got My Wheels Spinning
I’m just not big on small talk, generally speaking. So ninety-nine percent of the time I like to speed through the pleasantries and Lyft to my final destination in sweet “silence,” whether that means the voice navigation, the driver’s music, or true quiet.
On this rare one-percent ride, it was actually the driver’s playlist that got me gabbing. “Bills, Bills, Bills” was just starting when I hopped in the car.
“This makes me feel old.”
I laughed as I said it because it’s the truth. That Destiny’s Child song was released more than 20 years ago!
My driver, also a Black woman, chuckled as we drove off. A few blocks on, the song was still going strong and I asked her if she was still a fan.
“Of Beyoncé? Not really. I mean, I’m up on all of her recent stuff but no, I wouldn’t call myself a fan.”
I’ll call the driver Angela from here on out (not her real name). Also, quotes aren’t necessarily direct. I’m paraphrasing our conversation more than a few moons after it happened.
Angela has a young son and she cares a great deal about the power and influence of language in shaping the man he’ll grow up to be. Chief among the lessons, principles, and values she’s imparting to him is a deep respect (and love) of self and a fundamental regard for women, which means any media where words like “bitch” and “nigga” are OK is not okay with her.
“I feel like artists today—Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Kendrick, etc.—are making music for us rather than music for everyone. Even if it were only us listening, I’m not cool with the language. The bitches and niggas and hoes. But everyone is listening and that’s why they’re so successful, and it’s embarrassing.”
Preaching to the proverbial choir.
Like Angela, I want to live in a world where people wake the fuck up and vehemently reject the use of “bitch” and “nigga” in every setting, when speaking and when spoken to. I’m tired of hearing these terms thrown around carefree by all sides, sexes, and shades.
On the history of the n-word, Ta-Nehisi Coates suggests “As anyone who’s spent time with African-American history, and specifically with the literature, testimonials, and music of enslaved black people, knows the use of ‘nigger’ by black people to describe themselves is ancient.” I hold an B.A. in African-American Studies from UCLA but am admittedly foggy on this particular storyline in our linguistic journey. No matter.
Regardless of any lauded place in ancient history, given the dark turn it took on the tongues of Western Europeans with a paradigm to push and a world of non-White peoples to conquer, the word “nigger” (and any derivations thereof) feels about as salvageable as a swastika—that most ancient and international icon, which North Americans and Europeans will likely never again regard as a positive symbol of auspiciousness or good luck, and understandably so.
I remember wandering through the 18th-century Royal Palace at Caserta in Italy and being flummoxed by an otherwise gorgeous golden marble floor, inlaid entirely with what looked to me like swastikas. I was totally unaware of the history. Here’s an outline of the symbol’s North American heritage:
“The Whirling Log symbol is not associated with the Swastika and pre-dates WWII. Long before its appearance in WWII, the Whirling Log symbol has been seen as a symbol of healing, protection, and well-being not only by the Navajo people, but also by inhabitants of ancient India, Tibet, and many cultures across Asia. The Whirling Log symbol comes from a Navajo folk tale and is considered to represent well-being and good luck. After WWII, this symbol disappeared from most Native American art, but it can be seen on vintage Navajo weavings, basketry, and jewelry.” —Garland’s Indian Jewelry
The worst of our words may have many meanings over time (now dated as an abusive nickname for ladies in British English, did you know that “faggot” came to mean “an unpleasant or contemptible woman” across the pond in the 16th century before blossoming into the wildly offensive term we’re now familiar with in American English?). But are they really worth the fight for new life?
Let the Nazis have their symbol. Let the racists and misogynists have their words. If we’re diligent in our efforts to combat racism and sexism, the old hateful icons and terms will wither away, along with the -isms themselves. In the meantime, we can create new words and symbols and move the conversation and culture forward to that better place.
So, yeah. Re-appropriating words like “bitch” or “nigga” is misguided on the quest to topple sexism and racism, in my personal opinion (and that of Angela).
To quote Raquel Cepeda, “you would have to know the meaning and context before flipping the definition.” Therein, the original term and its negative meaning remains alive and well simply by virtue of people trying to transform it into something positive.
This kind of hopeful amnesia might work for less loaded words, but not for these beasts. So unless you’ve got the studies and stats to back it up, how can we celebrate or hold this approach up as a success?
Where are the lesson plans and who exactly signed off, if re-appropriation is in fact demonstrably so smart and effective? How is this curriculum being rolled out to teach boys and girls of all backgrounds to understand the modern duality of these words and the searing pain that they can still inflict when uttered casually in the “wrong” circles or when hurled at each other in anger, disdain, everyday disrespect or discrimination, or all out hate?
If Americans of all races, classes, and creeds had truly worked through the original words and the centuries-old ideas behind them, Hillary Clinton would be our 45th president.
“Racism, we are not cured of it. And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say nigger in public. … That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior.” —Barack Obama in a 2015 interview on the WTF with Marc Maron podcast
“‘Race is an idea, not a fact,’ the historian Nell Irvin Painter has written, and essential to the construct of a ‘white race’ is the idea of not being a nigger. Before Barack Obama, niggers could be manufactured out of Sister Souljahs, Willie Hortons, and Dusky Sallys. But Donald Trump arrived in the wake of something more potent — an entire nigger presidency with nigger health care, nigger climate accords, and nigger justice reform, all of which could be targeted for destruction or redemption, thus reifying the idea of being white. … White slavery is sin. Nigger slavery is natural. … Trump, more than any other politician, understood the valence of the bloody heirloom and the great power in not being a nigger.” —The First White President by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Maybe this is why more groups haven’t tried to “reclaim” their epithets.
Back to my ride.
I recalled that my first encounter with the n-word wasn’t on the receiving end of an angry racial epithet. Rather, it was listening to Straight Outta Compton in junior high. (I told you I was old!)
Niggas with attitude. Crazy-ass niggas. Pussy-ass niggas. I mean. That’s a lot. And also a lot of instances of the word “nigga,” to say nothing of all the “bitches” and “hoes” and more.
And like too many kids in ’88, I owned a copy of the cassette tape and knew all of the words to all of the songs and my parents had no idea.
Fast forward thirty years to today and while others may not be aggressively policing what the young eyes, ears, and minds in their care are consuming, Angela is doing what she can to combat what her son is exposed to when he’s not with her.
“I tell him we don’t use words like ‘bitch’ or ‘nigga’ because they’re not nice, positive, respectful words. I want him to understand this. And maybe he can help his friends understand too if they talk like this around him.”
I love this lady.
Angela goes on to tell me about driving during the Kendrick Lamar concert over the summer. On a Lyft Line, she picked up a White couple heading to the performance. The guy started playing Kendrick on speaker, from his phone.
She decided to leave it alone and powered through all the “niggas” on her way to pick up the last Line passenger—another White man who sat up front with her.
“Are you OK with this?” the man asked her almost immediately, about the music. She said she was fine and he was like, “Well I’m not” and turns to dude in the back seat to tell him in no uncertain terms to “Turn that shit off. It’s disrespectful.”
I love this man.
Angela and I talk about audience again: who’s listening and what it means.
I was once at a Jay-Z concert, and there was a moment when everybody — including white people — was screaming the N word. I gotta tell you, it didn’t make me feel good. — Oprah Winfrey
After the concert, Angela ferried fans home.
“I asked this one White guy what he liked so much about Kendrick’s music. All he could say was that it was ‘just great music’. I tried to get him to talk about how he felt connected to or inspired by the lyrics, but he had nothing. Either because it’s nothing more than entertainment to him or because he knows the music isn’t for him. Kendrick makes the music for a Black audience but then profits off its appeal to masses of non-Black listeners.”
To make matters more complicated, the issue is international. “Nigga” and foreign confusion around additional iterations of the n-word has been a global clusterfuck for a while now. Among other English terms and phrases that aren’t entirely kosher in the situations you might now find them abroad.
I share a couple “nigga” encounters from afar with Angela: explicit versions of raunchy American songs playing over the radio in European grocery stores as you roam the aisles and steal glances at other shoppers to gauge how good their English is by how appalled they do or don’t appear to be. That time a Venetian concierge warned me about the “niggers” who sell knock-off luxury goods in the streets. (Certo, I gave her a little lesson in American history, culture, and English and pray to the God I don’t believe in that she never ever used the word again.)
I noticed it in the first season and tried not to get stuck on it. But the “niggas” sweatshirt at the start of the second season was ridiculous.*
What were the responses you got to the “Ni — -s” sweatshirt in particular? The majority was positive. It was a tongue-and-cheek offering we introduced for Black History Month. People liked the juxtaposition of this socially charged “curse word” hand-sewn into pastel embroidery. It made some people uncomfortable — but our customer understands it.
We closed on a mutual disdain for Quentin Tarantino just as Angela was pulling over to drop me off.
I thanked her for the uplifting conversation.
This isn’t always an easy conversation to have with people. Especially other Black people. My friends and family think I’m so special around not wanting to embrace these awful words. We need to keep calling folks out and voicing our discontent.”
I promised her I would.
What do you think about these terms and their commonplace usage by all kinds of people in music, movies, television, and everyday life?
More on “nigger,” “nigga,” and “the n-word”
- The Oxford English Dictionary: “The word nigger has been used as a strongly negative term of contempt for a black person since at least the 18th century. Today it remains one of the most racially offensive words in the language. Also referred to as ‘the n-word,’ nigger is sometimes used by black people in reference to other black people in a neutral manner (in somewhat the same way that queer has been adopted by some gay and lesbian people as a term of self-reference, acceptable only when used by those within the community).”
- The Oxford English Dictionary: “The distinct pronunciation and spelling of nigga are sometimes deliberately adopted to distinguish it from nigger, especially when used by black people in a neutral sense. However, the word remains strongly racially offensive, especially when used by a nonblack person.”
- The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino Saying “Nigger”
- “People often ask me about my ‘stance’ on use of the word ‘nigger’ or ‘nigga.’ I grew up using the term very frequently with my black male friends. As I got older, as with sugary foods, I indulged less with ‘the n-word.’” —Baratunde Thurston
- “I grew up in the early stages of white kids getting ‘passes’ to say ‘nigga.’ … I can recall this internal debate as clearly as day — the idea was that my public refusal to say it might make those around me less willing to use it. Not saying the word was my 16-year-old freedom fight.” —Rembert Browne
- So, Black or White: How do you feel when your hear a Black person use the n-word in public and in earshot of people of all colors (especially White people)? Whether the person speaking “sounds educated” to you otherwise, given the public context of their conversation and choice of words, does this make them “sound” or appear less so? Does this also apply to public performers (e.g., singers, actors, comedians) in your eyes? In discussing these issues, some Black friends and family tell me that when they hear other Black folks use the n-word publicly (and this goes for performers as well) it transforms said Black folks into the “niggas” that Chris Rock claims Black people hate; ironically lumping Chris Rock himself into this bunch.
- “[N]igger is a great word. … Like all language or thought police, the nigger-nazis are humorless snobs who dream of a world without toilets. … I get a warm feeling every time I hear someone come up with a new way to deploy it.” —Ta-Nehisi Coates in 2007
- “Nigger when used by black people, is a lovely, lovely thing. I will believe that till the end of my days. It can be beautifully ominous (‘Nigger, what?’) and just plain beautiful (‘Ta-Nehisi, that’s my nigger’).” —Ta-Nehisi Coates in 2008
- “A separate and unequal standard for black people is always wrong. And the desire to ban the word ‘nigger’ is not anti-racism, it is finishing school.” —Ta-Nehisi Coates in 2013
- “You cannot be my friend and use that word around me. It shows my age, but I feel strongly about it. … You’re never going to bring me to the side of ‘The word is okay.’’’ —Oprah Winfrey on the n-word
- “No matter how justified you feel, as soon as you start arguing about your right to use the n–, that is a sign that you have become too attached to the n–. The right to use that word is not a right worth fighting for.” —Jay Smooth on Gweneth Paltrow’s use of “ni**as” in 2012
- Are non-Black people flocking to buy the “niggas” sweatshirt after seeing it on Insecure, and rocking it in public? I’m dying to know.
- “I don’t know if I can stop. I probably been saying that since I was one year old.” —Kendrick Lamar on his use of the word “nigga”
- “… and the White kids is singin’ that ‘nigga’ word like a muthafucka.” —Ja Rule on “nigga” at a concert
- “It’s not about being hood that gives you a pass to say it. It’s about being that minority.” —Ja Rule on why Latinos can say “nigga” too
- “It’s fucked up. It started out racist and somebody made it cool.” —Fat Joe explains why he’s “just as Black as any Black nigga”
- That time Madonna referred to her White son Rocco as #disnigga
- “It’s political.” —Too $hort on White people using the n-word
- “How does the n-word make you feel?” asks CNN
- Is saying the n-word still the final frontier of taboo on television?
- Why so many TV shows are talking about the n-word right now
- PLOS ONE studies the link between Google searches for “nigger” (not “nigga”) and the Black death rate in America
More on “bitch”
- The Oxford English Dictionary: So many definitions (have a look), but only in the U.S. is it also “used as a form of address.” The example given is “I’m free, bitches!”
- While it’s been a derogatory label for ladies as far back as the 15th century, it no longer suggests “that the woman in question was promiscuous (an allusion to the fact that female dogs have so many puppies).” What changed? Women pursued the right to vote and “Between 1915 and 1930, the use of “bitch” in newspapers and literature more than doubled.” And before Kanye wrote “Perfect Bitch” about Kim, Hemingway wrote about “bitch goddesses.”
- Read more on The Evolution of the Bitch from Vice News
- Here’s another history of the b-word
- The part around 3:20 where Fat Joe calls out women who refer to their girls as “bitches.”
- “My partner and her closest female friends have been known to sling ‘bitch’ around in playful banter. A quick way for me to lose custody of [my] child and take up residence at the local singles bar would be for [me] to address her in that manner.” —Ta-Nehisi Coates on language
- You can’t reclaim what was never yours, asserts Professor Sherryl Kleinman and her colleagues in Reclaiming Critical Analysis: the Social Harms of ‘Bitch’.
- The abstract is brilliant because it also works for other words: “The increasing use of ‘bitch’ among women makes it harder to see links between the word and patriarchy. In pop culture and in everyday life, men and women use ‘bitch’ as an epithet against women (and non-conventional men) as well as a means of expressing dominance over a person or object. Women who ‘reclaim’ the term — by declaring themselves ‘bitches,’ calling other women ‘bitches’ in a friendly way, or using the term as a female-based generic — unwittingly reinforce sexism. Unlike the term ‘feminist,’ which is tied to a movement for social change, ‘bitch’ provides women only with false power, challenging neither men nor patriarchy.”
- See what I did here: “The increasing use of ‘nigger’ and its variants (most commonly ‘nigga’) among African-Americans makes it harder to see links between the word and systemic racism or racism period. In pop culture and in everyday life, Americans use ‘nigger’ as an epithet against Black people as well as a means of expressing dominance over a person or object. African-Americans who ‘reclaim’ the term — by declaring themselves ‘niggas,’ calling other African-Americans ‘niggas’ in a friendly way, or using the term as a generic — unwittingly reinforce racism. Unlike the terms ‘civil rights,’ ‘human rights,’ or ‘Black Lives Matter’ which are tied to a movement for social change, ‘nigger’ and its variants provides Black Americans only with false power, challenging neither White supremacy nor [systemic] racism.”
- Bitch magazine turned twenty in 2016