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A series, inspired by the CNN special, dedicated to race related identity issues concerning Black people in America.

In lieu of the recent controversy about Paula Deen ‘s confession to the use of the word “nigger” in her deposition and Rachel Jeantel’s recounting Trayvon Martin’s use of the word “cracker,” CNN did a special on “the N-word.” In this special anchor, Don Lemon, explored the feelings behind the use of the word “nigger” as well as words like “cracker,” and “honkey.”I noticed was that the panel kept saying that the word “nigger” is now being used as a term of endearment as the word “nigga.”

As a follow up to my previous post responding to the CNN special on the N-word, this post reflects on the word “nigga.” Many people assert that the word “nigger” has been adopted as term of endearment in the Black community. It has also been stated that usually when this is done the word is spelled with an -a rather -er at the end.

The Story

There was a time when I thought that the best way to describe how Black people use the word “nigger” with one another (without it being derogatory) was to call it a term of endearment. However, in contemporary discussions that concept has begun to fail to explain the complicated nature of using the word “nigger/nigga” in the Black community.

In accepting the usage of the word “nigger/nigga.” It is now being questioned why, then, can’t a White person use the word with their Black friends? They find their Black friends endearing and the Black people call each other that, what’s so wrong if a White person (who has no racial prejudices) uses the word? Then there are Black people who do not find the word endearing and, therefore, object to the term of endearment argument. These objections undervalue the real concept of what it means when Black people use the word “nigger/nigga” with each other. And that is because the term of endearment argument fails to capture the essence of using the word “nigger/nigga” in the Black community.

Playing the Dozens

The Dirty Dozens is part of the Black oral tradition. It is a game of wit, verbal ability, and self-control. The dozens consists of two people verbally sparring with one another through insults. The idea is to outwit and insult your opponent without losing your cool (evidenced by the laughter or oohs and ahhs of the audience surrounding the event. The dozens has a number of slang references such as “snapping,” “cracking,” “ratting,” “dissing, and “joningOne of the most well known examples of the dozens is telling “yo’ mama jokes.”

It is believed that the Dozens has its root in African oral games such as Ikocha Nkocha. These games are played by adolescents who verbally duel with one another (often including talking about each other’s mothers). It is believed that slaves brought this tradition to America. It became known as the dozens, so it is speculated, because sick, infirm, or disabled slaves were sold by the dozens instead of individually. Therefore, the dozens is a term for the lowest blow. It is also speculated that possibly the slaves engaged in this verbal insulting to degrade each other and prove that they were not lowest of the low.

However it began and despite how it came to be, it is a well-known aspect of Black American culture. In America the Dozens was played by kids in the days before computers and video games when children went outside to play. Children would form circles around the two children who were battling one another. Often this was a way of releasing tension or aggression towards each other. The game would continue until someone was crying, fighting, or walking away.

Some research I have seen claim the game is played by “low class” children or by children in “urban communities.” The dozens, however, is not relegated to only the low class or to children. The Dozens is played by adults and the wealthy as well. In fact, the Dozens is more of a Black social concept than a game.

The Dozens

The Dozens, when examined as a social concept, can be seen as serving a number of purposes for Black Americans. The Dozens can be seen as a way of coping with adversity such as bullying, racism and oppression. Theorists who believe this posit that because Black people could not express their anger with their oppressors, they took the aggression out through banter such as the dozens. It is also suggested that this game taught Black youth how to deal with adversity and verbal aggression (since historically a Black person could lose their life for losing their cool with someone who antagonizes them. I believe both are true.

When the Dozens is played by adults it is used as a self-defense mechanism for nervousness, insecurity, or passive aggression. It is then that the Dozens becomes its most malicious because the idea is to verbally strike below the belt and belittle the other individual and express superiority.

“A thing is funny when — in some way that is not actually offensive or frightening — it upsets the established order. Every joke is a tiny revolution.”
– George Orwell

The Dozens being played by adults led to its incorporation into Black comedy. Comedians such as Dick Gregory, Richard Pryor, Redd Fox, Paul Mooney, Moms Mabley, and Eddie Murphy. All these comedians incorporated the concept of the Dozens in their humor.

The Dozens being played by adults also led to its incorporation into music such as the blues and, of course, rap.

The Point

The dozens is 1part humor, 1 part defense mechanism, 1 part catharsis, and 1 part revolution for Black people. Playing the dozens is humorous in a very dry, witty way. It does allow us (especially at the young age that it is first practiced) to prepare ourselves for a world outside of our mothers’ homes where we will find the most vicious criticism and exploitation of our weaknesses. It forces us to come to terms with our flaws and short comings, and it allows us to upset the balance of political correctness and expose the world for what it is.

One of the most important nuances about playing the dozens is that it is very contextual. Due to the use of insult and exploitation of flaws, the dozens can very easily become an argument or a physical fight. This depends on the context. When the dozens is played before a strange audience or a group of people who are completely connected to one party, this takes the game into a malicious context where it can be interpreted that the party with all the support is grandstanding or trying to embarrass the other individual. Another context that takes the dozens into malicious territory is the kind of insult used and the way it is used. The dozens has served as the foundation for two other aspects of Black culture: comedy and music. It is a well known fact that the term “nigger/nigga” was used in a derogatory manner to insult Black people in America. It is no wonder, then, that the word was often used in playing the dozens.

For this reason, when we see Black people use the word “nigger/nigga” it is acceptable because of the context in which it is used. A person using a word that is derogatory to people like themselves cannot be considered being racist. It is a privilege reserved for having found a way to co-exist with the hatred against what you can’t help that you are. It is a privilege, like White privilege in America: you can’t always explain why it’s there — but it is — and until the whole world changes, neither will the privilege.

I’m not sayin’; I’m just sayin,’

An Angry Black Man

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