Thinker's Notebook

The Thinkers Notebook by Marlon Rice



Bill Maher, Ice Cube and this alleged Repurposing & Repossession

of “nigga”

Bill Maher and Ice Cube

What if I took a gun, stuck a rose stem first into the barrel and called it a vase?

And then, every time me or my friends walked around with this gun with a rose stuck inside we called it a vase, but if we ever saw you with a gun we’d get upset and accuse you of having a gun? Wouldn’t that just be the silliest thing? I mean, just because you stick a rose into a gun, it doesn’t make the gun a vase. The gun is still a gun, capable of hurting or killing people, regardless of what you say it is or how you say you use it. And oh, how hypocritical would it be for me to carry my gun that I call a vase everywhere I go, but become irate and angry when I see you carrying yours.

Last week, Bill Maher drew some negative attention when he responded to Republican Senator Ben Sasse’s comment about having Maher come and work in the fields of Nebraska by saying,

“Senator, I’m a House Nigger.”


Almost immediately, Twitter and Facebook was filled with comments about Maher’s words. He’s insensitive. He’s racist. His show should be cancelled immediately. The word nigger and its remixed spelling nigga have always been and will always be a hot-button topic. Its origin is purely racist and evil, a word spewed from the mouths of overseers in the Antebellum South when referring to their chattel, their human property, the Black slave. It followed the degradation of the Black race out of slavery, and into Jim Crow, when people used the word to remind you who you were, and to reinforce that you were nothing more. Eventually, Blacks began using the word with and about other Blacks. As the new tongue called slang began to take hold of the youth in inner cities, so too did this word. Comedians used it to incite laughter. The guys on the block used it to describe one another. Somehow, someway, this word was welcomed into Black urban vernacular.

I used it.

I used it in almost every sentence I spoke between the ages of 16 and 33. I used it, because as a child, I heard my uncles use it. I used it because everyone did – my neighbors, my family, strangers in the community, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, everybody. It was how I described my friend, “he’s my nigga”. It was how I described my enemy, “that nigga”. It was how I relayed my feelings on anything, like “nigga please”.

When elders would say that I shouldn’t use such a horrible word, I never could relate because I didn’t see the horror in it. I’d debate that we took the power away from the word by changing the spelling. Nigger was evil. But nigga was okay to use. Just as long as Whites didn’t use it, because when they use it they are being racist. But me, I’m using it as a “term of endearment”.

I knew a woman who is White but was born and raised in Jamaica. She came to America as a kid, and as a young woman she worked in the music business. All her friends were Black. Her husband was Puerto Rican. Most of her business associates were Black. But as I said, she is a White woman. When I was first introduced to her, we hit it off immediately. She was cool. We spoke about all kinds of things. One day we were with a bunch of friends and one of our mutual friends, who didn’t know that we were cool, made mention to her that they didn’t know that she and I were friends. Her reply to that person was, “Oh yeah. Marlon is my nigger.”


Now, it is very possible that she meant Marlon is my nigga. But that’s NOT how it felt.

Her saying that bothered me. When we were alone I asked her about it, and she actually got upset with me. She said that all her Black friends are okay with her using the word because of how she was raised. She said I was being too sensitive about it. I smiled it off, but she and I were never as cool as we were before she used that word in describing me. I don’t care how many of her Black friends let her use it with them, it bothered me that she felt so familiar that she could use it in such a flippant manner. I never used or even looked at the word the same after.

Like my former friend, Bill Maher works in entertainment. He has Black friends, and has been linked to a number of Black women, most notably Karrine Stephens, who is affectionately known as “Superhead”. He has used the word on camera before. In 2001, Maher argued on his show, Politically Incorrect, that anyone should be able to use the word. So, I’m not totally surprised or shocked by his use of the word, and moreso, I’m not convinced that he is contrite for using it. He has already stated that he believes he should be able to use the word. The question is why? Why does he feel that he should be able to use the word? In his own words from that 2001 show, “Blacks say that Whites cannot use this word. I disagree… The word has changed. It has been co-opted as a term of endearment.” His point was that because Blacks use the word in television and music, the word should be seen as less hurtful and is part of the popular vernacular.

The problem is that Blacks use of the word is rooted in our own cognitive dissonance. When the word began to appear in urban vernacular we were a people trying to deal with the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder of slavery, while trying to identify as free and equal, all the while still working to patch up the holes in our social, spiritual and emotional selves which were the results of generations of oppression and subordinance. Even now, we suffer from many of the same maladies. Using the term nigga on each other was a sick way of trying to delineate how the White world at large addressed us, our way of taking the word and finding comedy in its use against us. For the Chinese, the word “chink” is derogatory. It equals nigger with regards to the way it feels when it is used on a Chinese citizen. But Chinese men and women do not use that word when describing each other the way that Blacks use nigger. The Chinese have never felt a need to co-opt that word, because it’s foreign to them. Chink is not a Cantonese word, or a Mandarin word, so the Chinese have never felt a need to use it to add to their vernacular. The reasoning behind Blacks use of the word nigger is an indictment of the fact that Blacks still recognize the subordinance related to being Black and living in America.

So, when Ice Cube, during a taping of Real Time with Bill Maher, says in response to Maher’s statement that, “That’s our word, and you can’t have it back,” I have to disagree. Yes, it is obvious that we have accepted the word, and we have used it with such fluidity that it appears wherever you see examples of Black entertainment. But it isn’t our word. It’s an English word created to describe Black people in a derogatory light. Now, as with most words you can take it and do with it what you want, just like my example of using a gun like a vase, but don’t be misled. That gun is not a vase, because the moment it is used in its natural intent, someone gets hurt. Just like the word nigger. Blacks can reappropriate and reconstruct it, and then build ideals on why it is acceptable to do such a thing, but the moment that the word is used by its originators in its natural intent, someone gets hurt. The only way to move passed the pain and frustrations of that word is to never ever use it with one another.


The word nigger continues to hold its power because we have created a secondary taboo about it, where certain people can say it like water flowing from a faucet, while still others are totally outlawed to even mumble it. The controversy will continue for as long as Blacks maintain this confusing ambiguity about the meaning and use of the word. It isn’t acceptable.

In the same way that words like Kike, Spic and Chink aren’t acceptable, neither is nigger.

It isn’t acceptable when other races say it to Blacks, and it isn’t acceptable when Blacks use it on other Blacks.

That’s what Ice Cube should’ve said.



(Community Journalist Marlon Rice, author, social media consultant and events marketing specialist, created the popular Nights at the Round Table panel discussion series, and the website.  Rice recently joined DBG Media’s Our Time Press as a columnist and events facilitator. Rice’s “The Thinker’s Notebook” is dedicated to the memory of his late beloved mentor, Mama Aminisha Black, whose column, “The Parent’s Notebook,” appeared for many years in this paper.)



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