Throughout its history, the n-word's usage was primarily meant to dehumanize, debase and dishonor African-Americans. In the "good old days," the word was used by bigots with either contempt or patronization. Its underlying meaning, however, was always the same.
Increasingly, many African-Americans use the n-word as if to say, "Yes, we are worthy of dehumanization, debasement and dishonor and we're darn proud of it." It's now even used to identify a friend or associate. What they don't acknowledge is how they still might fire off that word during heated altercations and conflicts, which suggest the word is not still quite the term of endearment that may maintain it is at other times.
Some within the ghetto subculture try to rationalize the continued use of the n-word by claiming that an alternate spelling - "nigga" - signifies a positive meaning.
Is the ghetto underclass that desperate for positivity? The word "sucker" has just as negative a connotation when it's spelled "sucka," so the alternate spelling argument holds no water with me. That these people can muster any justification at all for using the n-word is surprising, but that justification fails when it is juxtaposed with the vile historical origin of the word.
The truth of the matter surrounding the n-word is that the black ghetto subculture has willingly internalized its meaning. John McWhorter, author of acclaimed book Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America discusses the concept of therapeutic alienation in black America. He says this alienation prioritizes social defiance over social progress, and manifests itself in the ever-present exaggeration of all that is negative in black America. By calling themselves and others the n-word, members of the black ghetto subculture reinforce and comfort themselves with the therapeutic alienation that is at the very core of that subculture.
Black America has historically allowed itself to be defined by its worst and least-respected citizens, not its best and brightest. This strategy, in my opinion, has actually hastened the attainment of some political and legal victories over the years. But black America now suffers from a dictatorship of the black lower class so well-entrenched it would make Karl Marx himself proud.
This black lower class has appropriated the n-word, and the ineffectual black middle and upper classes can do nothing to wrestle the animal back into the cage. Bill Cosby was skewered in his attempt to publically castigate the destructive practices of the black underclass.
We now have white youngsters who throw around the n-word with their friends of all ethnic backgrounds. I never thought I would live to see the day when a white teenage waiter would find it acceptable to use the term in my presence as a customer, but it happened. The teen explained that he meant no harm by using the word in my presence, and I that should "get over" my complex about the term. I opted to simply leave it to his employer to resolve his naiveté.
Clear-thinking people need to call out this new use of the term. Simply mentioning that it is unacceptable in polite usage will at least prompt some to reconsider its use. Alternatives should be suggested, and - where possible - people should be held accountable until they realize that even "nigga" is viewed by most as an offense ethic slur.
Unfortunately, thanks to the long marriage of mass media to black ghetto subculture, black Americans can increasingly expect to be greeted with "Hey, my nigga," "Good morning, my nigga" and "How can I help you, my nigga" all around the world. For that, blacks have themselves to blame for permitting it for so long.