A Primer On The Use, Usage, Versatility, And Utility Of "Nigga"


During a post-game press conference after losing to Wisconsin Saturday night, a sensitive mic caught Kentucky guard Andrew Harrison saying "Fuck that nigga" under his breath while at the podium. The comment was a response to a reporter's question about Wisconsin forward Frank Kaminsky, who is about as far from Black as you'd expect someone from Wisconsin named "Frank Kaminsky" would be.

Despite the fact that, if you listen to the comment, Harrison's "fuck that nigga" is clearly (clearly!) said in a bit of a half annoyed/half joking manner instead of pure anger, it became a thing. Because the use and usage of nigga — and the cultural double standard that "allows" Black people to say it — will apparently always be a thing.

So, to clear up any confusion — and by "clear up any" I totally mean "cause more" — here's a short primer on nigga, which I've decided to call "The Short Nigga Primer."


In your introduction you seem to be defending Harrison. How is that right, when Harrison is clearly in the wrong here?

I'm not defending Harrison. He's actually in the wrong for a completely different reason (which I'll discuss in a sec). I'm merely stating that "nigga" use and usage is a bit more nuanced than some of the pearl clutching about this suggests. Harrison wasn't using it as a slur. The feeling behind it was no different than if he said "man" or "dude" instead.

So, in your opinion, how was Harrison in the wrong?

The problem with what Harrison did is that he violated the second rule of "nigga" use. Only use it around people who understand, and aren't offended by, the use and usage of nigga. Basically, if there's anyone within earshot who might be uncomfortable with it — and this includes both non-Black people and other Black people — you probably shouldn't use it as freely. Basically, treat it like a profanity.


Ironically, Kaminsky likely had no problem with it. And, since he's obviously been around hundreds of Black basketball players — and presumably has heard "nigga" hundreds of times — he probably has a more nuanced understanding of it than some of the adults writing about it do.

What's the first rule of nigga use?

Make sure you're a Black person first.

There are Black people who get offended by other Black people saying nigga?

Definitely! There are going to be some Black people upset I'm even writing about it. This is why it's important to know your audience. This also stresses the point that nigga is a word that suggests a certain familiarity. Veteran nigga users (and yes, "veteran nigga user" is definitely on my business cards) know you should probably only use it around people you're familiar with. (And, more importantly, people who are familiar with you.)


Let me put it this way: I (obviously) use nigga. I don't use it frequently — I've probably typed it more today than I've said it in the last couple weeks — but I'm obviously comfortable with it. But, I'll admit that if some Black dude I never met, seen, or heard of before came up to me today and said "What's up, nigga?" I'd probably feel a certain way about it. Not because he called me nigga. But because he doesn't know me well enough to call me nigga. Nigga is not an introduction. Nigga is something you use after the introduction has already happened.

This might seem complicated, but most Black people — at least most Black veteran users of nigga — understand this. It's intuitive, and this goes back to the point about the level of nuance with nigga use and usage. It's a complicated word — perhaps the English language's most complicated word — and to use it rightly means that you've received enough nigga-use education to understand that. Basically, you've earned it.


Switching gears a bit, Kaminsky — as you pointed out — is White. Why would Harrison use that word in reference to a White guy?

In the past month, I've referred to each of the following things as a "nigga."

My car. A bottle of hot sauce. A basketball. The weather. My dog. My wife. A grape. Jason Statham. The concept of having an all-red party. The concept of attending a party where the hosts expect you to wear all red. The eight of clubs. The internet.


Point? When you're a veteran nigga user, nigga can be any and everything. Noun, pronoun, verb, adverb, adjective, transitive verb, prepositional phrase, White guy from Wisconsin, whatever. It's complicated, man.

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)

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I'm glad you brought this up. I noticed the same thing at the Justin Bieber roast, where the N-word flew wildly amongst a largely white audience. It's no wonder white folk are confused about its usage when Snoop calls Biebs his nigga, and talks about how black/nigga-ish Bieber has become, using all negative traits, of course. This is what I was getting at last week about how we have to change our current definition of blackness and what it entails.

It is lazy to use the n-word in all situations towards all people and then get upset when the wrong person uses it. Who is the "right" person? Why are they the right person? Could they be the wrong person in black packaging? I've heard black people use the word (Chris Rock comes to mind) to separate good black people from bad black people (here's a good article on that http://www.salon.com/2014/1… )

I have used the n-word, and may use it again, but it is not an essential part of my vocabulary and not necessary to buttress my blackness. I could live without saying it, and if it went away, I think we'd be better off for it.