Arizona, the Grand Canyon state, home of multiple vibrant cultures, a plethora of phenomenal foods, and multiple thriving art scenes. I’ve never felt a real connection to this state despite living here for the latter part of my life, but I can understand why people do. It’s hard to deny the absolute beauty in getting Eegees while a vivid sunset gently kisses the heads of the mountains.
Part of my disconnect from this state stems from the realization that I was the only Black person in most of my classes and most spaces I occupied. This is a trend that has been consistent throughout the last fifteen years of my life. I mean, what else could I’ve expected living in a state where we make up less than five percent of the population (source)? I often found myself being relentlessly battered with multiple questions about Blackness.
To all the Black Arizonans reading this, you know there’s one question in particular that somehow outranks the common, “Can I touch your hair?” That question is, motherfucking drum roll please, “Why can’t I say it?”. This “it” being the infamous n-word also known as nigger or nigga.
There isn’t anything technically stopping anyone from saying it. It’s not like a non-Black person says nigga, then suddenly the Black Panthers burst through a window with a storm of guns and sewing equipment to stitch the perpetrator’s mouth shut. It would be pretty cool if that’s how it worked though.
I’m sure multiple Black people in Arizona have realized by now that non-Black people here love saying nigga. I mean they really love saying nigga. I have to emphasize, they really LOVE saying nigga. So much so, a Black photographer in Phoenix was shot by three non-Black people for telling them he didn’t feel comfortable with them saying it (source). So much so, a Black student at the University of Arizona was beaten bloody by two white students while they yelled the word at him (source).
I’ve seen this often translated into local alternative spaces. It’s often under the guise of “We’re against the status quo, so I’m not going to follow this arbitrary rule.” This logic often undermines the history of these spaces. Punk and hardcore have always acted as a space to challenge the norm. The first official rap song, “The Message” was a look into Black poverty. Rock and roll would be nothing without the contributions of Sister Rosetta Tharpe. LGBTQ spaces would be nothing without the undying activism of Black trans women such as Marsha P. Johnson. Participating in anti-Blackness isn’t going against the status quo, it is the status quo. It’s a form of erasure that undermines the contributions Black people have made to these spaces.
This infiltrates primarily non-Black alternative spaces in a plethora of ways. Non-Black gays may claim their “spirit animal” is a Black woman despite not being a Black woman, or not having any Indigenous heritage that uses spirit animals. White women wearing dreadlocks but staying silent when a Black woman is chastised or fired for wearing her hair naturally. Of course, the list wouldn’t be complete without non-Black people saying nigga, but policing the Black community in regards to how we should feel about them saying nigga. These are just the norms I’ve grown accustomed to living in Arizona.
This inherent ownership of Black culture is rooted in slavery. You think this is a reach? Let’s break it down. The product of the Black person is praised or profited off of, while the Black person is discarded or brutalized. Slave owners knew that if they ripped the culture from the Africans they enslaved that they could subjugate them more easily. This act of cultural genocide has just transformed to keep up with the times. If we step up against whoever is having false ownership of our culture, we’re gaslit or met with violence. I often wonder why they’re so scared of us having ownership of our culture? Do they think we’ll revolt violently like Nat Turner? Do they think we aren’t capable of creating a culture so beautiful that everyone wants to steal it? I’ll leave that up to you.
This doesn’t just apply to non-Black people saying nigga, but to how Black culture is consumed. Anything we create will get swept up into mainstream culture and saturated to the point where the original owner has to fight tooth and nail to get any credit. This ranges from the erasure of Black revolutionaries being the blueprint of modern activism to our slang being jacked once it’s deemed trendy by non-Black audiences.
We can have the same oppressor and shared experiences, but my experiences being Black is different from yours. Just like your experiences are different from mine. That’s okay to accept. I know you might have that one Black friend that lets you say it; however, assuming that your one Black friend represents the opinions of every Black person is the literal definition of tokenizing. Boiling your Black friend’s existence down to a reason to say nigga is just plain fucked up. If you can’t do the bare minimum of taking one word out of your vocabulary, how can I expect you to have the capability to do any of the more difficult tasks of unlearning anti-Blackness in hopes of building solidarity?
I live in Arizona, so I am speaking from my experiences. However, I know Black people that are in primarily non-Black spaces can empathize. To the non-Black people reading this article, leave this discourse of this word to our community, because it isn’t your conversation to have.