In 2013, during my junior year of college, I had the privilege of studying abroad in London for a semester; an opportunity I could only dream about a few short years before as an inner-city youth in Washington, DC. Like most students with the opportunity to study abroad, I used it to branch out and explore as much of Europe as I could afford. One of the first places I bought a train ticket to was France.
I traveled with three fellow black students. We were all from different economic backgrounds. I knew it would likely be decades before I had another opportunity to travel at all, let alone in such an immersive way. I was blown away by the simple moments, like macaroons being available at McDonald’s the way oatmeal cookies are in America or speaking Wolof with some Senegalese scarf salesmen on the sidewalk of the Champs-Élysées. Each scene, small as they may have been to others, had been earned after years of hard work and dedication to my studies, all while navigating racism and poverty in predominantly wealthy, white environments. They were also moments I would spend years paying off to my university, in increments of $50 a month. Therefore, to me, it was important that I soak up each one.
Slurs for other racial demographics have all but disappeared from the culture completely.
We toured the Palace of Versailles, taking selfies with the portraits and all the gold trimmed ornaments. As we strolled through the garden, we joked about living there and the hassle it would be to have to mow the acres of grass lawns. As we gazed at the lawn and fantasized about life in France, a group of white French men called out, “Niggas in Paris!” We knew they were referring to the Jay-Z and Kanye West song that had become immensely popular worldwide two years prior. Though I had little doubt that my experience in Paris was quite different from any Jay-Z and Kanye had ever experienced, this group of young white men didn’t seem to take that into consideration. I only saw them laughing with each other and perhaps, they thought, with us. One of my travel buddies said, “I mean, we can’t really be mad at them because Kanye’s saying it. They heard Kanye saying it and they think it’s okay for them to repeat it, that it’s what we like.”
I marveled at her use of the word we. Naively, I believed that if we ignored the guys, that they would go away. Instead, one of them called out to our male friend, “Kanye West! Kanye West!” He rolled his eyes and opened his mouth to say something, but just started walking faster instead. The sympathetic, travel buddy said, “Just wave to them. They don’t mean anything by it.” I don’t know if they waved or not; I just kept walking.
It seems the goal of these songs is to make “black cool” available to whoever will pay for it without the burden of history.
Though a brief moment in time, this incident has stayed with me for years primarily because of what it said to me about language and who controls it. I’ve questioned some black people’s attempt at “redefining” the N-word not because I believe language is stagnant, but because it knows no bounds. The intent of changing the meaning of the word circulates around the idea that only black people will be “allowed” to use it and I’ve never been able to wrap my head around that concept.Slurs for other racial demographics have all but disappeared from the culture completely. No one argues over who can say “k-ke”, “ch-nk”, or “w-tb-ck.” We all understand what those words mean and treat them accordingly.
Over the years I’ve hopped off the “black people shouldn’t say the N-word either” train, mostly because as far as I’m concerned, people are free to say or call themselves whatever they want. However, some interesting questions still remain for me, especially when I see people get into arguments on the internet or in real life. If only black people are allowed to say the word without it being a slur, how do we determine black? Can half-black people say it? What about people with black grandparents? Are the ones with EBT cards cleared but not those that summer in the Vineyard? And if so, what does that say about how we, black Americans, view our own blackness? This, to me, is more important than how anyone else views it.
To me, it’s not just the fact that the French people made the joke “Niggas in Paris” but the fact that they desperately wanted to share it with us.
All of that aside, what “Niggas in Paris” and any other popular rap song that makes use of the slur does, is make the N-word available to everyone without critique or nuance. It seems the goal of these songs is to make “black cool” available to whoever will pay for it without the burden of history. In his article on Dave Chapelle, Myles Johnson says, “There is money to be had by performing ignorance and by making others who are committed to ignorance feel better about their choices. There is not much stardom or money to be had in disrupting imaginations and pushing intellectual thought to the edge.” I think this is what we also see with Kanye and many other rappers. Maybe ignorance should be replaced with another less definitive word, but the point still remains. It is important to also remember that Kanye is the same person who tried to give the Confederate flag new meaning by including it in his fashion line. The issue with Kanye’s attempts to “reclaim” these negative symbols in American culture is that it doesn’t feel thorough.
In contrast, I think of Junot Diaz’s use of the N-word in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and This is How You Lose Her. Instead of softening the blow by using the spelling “nigga,” Diaz uses the hard and jarring, “-er” ending, forcing the reader to deal with the weight of history.
I didn’t need to ask these French kids “who gave you permission to say that?” The answer was obvious…
Finally, there is the issue of representation. Because Kanye is Kanye, he can do whatever he wants. He can change his name to nigger and it wouldn’t have anything to do with me. And yet, somehow, even at the Palace of Versaille, Kanye’s words and actions do have something to do with me, because of representation. Because, for whatever reason, more with black people than anyone else I think, what another black person does or says somehow has some weight on how people view the overall black population. Partly, I know it’s because black people don’t control their image in the global media. And maybe it’s just because people pay so much attention to black people in general. I don’t know. To me, it’s not just the fact that the French people made the joke “Niggas in Paris” but the fact that they desperately wanted to share it with us. Twice. I mean, if we had been more receptive, they probably would have invited us out for drinks or something. It just felt like that type of thing, like we were all supposed to be in on it.
The “Niggas in Paris” moment to me was an example of how everyone wants access to blackness as long as they don’t have to deal with the weight of the history. I didn’t need to ask these French kids “who gave you permission to say that?” The answer was obvious: Kanye and Jay-Z. What I really wanted to know, more than anything else was who said you could talk to me?