Who gets to say that?

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In my town, it’s hard to determine a person’s race just by listening to them talk.

I hear African-American vernacular and am often surprised when I turn to see the person speaking is Caucasian. They seem to have a handle on the language more than me. They have the “swag,” the intonations and style of dress.

I envy the ease at which they feel comfortable in a world that some people of their race look down on. I respect that. I believe in everyone’s freedom to act the way they want, and if they identify more with this culture, then I give them two thumbs up.

My problem is when this participation is seen as a belief that they somehow know what it is to be black, and that being black is summed up by being able to speak and dress a certain way.

Recently, while sitting on the bus, I heard a rowdy group of mostly black teenagers. There were two Caucasian teens, who I heard twice call the blacks “nigga.”

I don’t think they were using the term in a Deep South, Jim Crow manner. I believe they have an understanding of the reappropriation of the term nigger in the context that many black people use it. But just because they are sitting in the back of the bus with their black friends doesn’t mean they really know what it means to be in the back of the bus.

I know the use of the word nigga is very debated and misunderstood. But I believe black people have earned the right to use this word. It isn’t something we asked for. But any use of the word in any form by another race is just disturbing.

Black people were able to take a very hurtful word and embrace one another using it. The use of the word nigga by black people is basically saying, “I know they calling you a nigger, but it’s all right because you my nigga, and love you.”

It came out of a time before it was politically incorrect to use the “N word.” I am a very inclusive person when it comes to race, but it is impossible for any person who is not black to participate in the side of black culture.

To this day, black people deal with being called names such as “black tar nigger,” as I was once called on the North Side of Chicago. We see the images of water hoses being sprayed on our ancestors because they were just trying to attend a mostly Caucasian school. I deal with my Caucasian friends telling me that a large majority of their friends and family still use the word nigger in a negative way.

And so if I hear someone of my race call me nigga, I know it’s out of love and understanding of the pain that is often involved with being black in America.

I was born black and will die black. My blackness is not measured by the clothes I wear or how many “finnas” I can throw around. It’s not measured by the car I drive or the music I listen to. It is, however, measured in the heart-wrenching stories I hear from grandparents who had to work in the fields as children instead of attending school.

My blackness is measured by my appreciation of education and the right to vote. It is measured in a shared experience that cannot be taught or learned through ethnography and outside participation. While I am an inclusive individual, I am adamant about the exclusivity of the word to only people who are black.

Fountain teaches at Richland Community College. The former Austin resident graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and has taken graduate courses at Illinois State University, where she plans to continue her studies.


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