Old habits die hard. Worse yet, bad habits die noisily.

People in the general vicinity of my skin tone have created a lot of controversy around the N-famous (see what I did there?) word known now by its primary letter. Created by ignorant slave traders, perpetuated by an entire culture of hateful, scarcity-clutching, disdainfully judgmental people, and ironically commandeered by the very people which the word seeks to besmirch and persecute, this word has gone through several permutations in the last few decades or so, each an attempt to soften or ‘flip’ the meaning and reestablish the culture surrounding it.

To no avail.

No matter how popular the word has become, thanks largely to stand-up comedy and Rap music, Nigger is still the word that will always make somebody in the room uncomfortable when spoken, no matter the venue, company, or intonation in which it’s uttered. Over the last several years, I have personally made it a mission to remove it from my vocab, but I’ve gotta admit that it’s not an easy task, even for somebody like me that hasn’t used the word profusely throughout my life. Even now, I’m speaking of the process concurrently, and it’s been years.

I think there’s a solution to killing something completely dead, but it’s not burying it or ignoring it. Unfortunately for a lot of black men and women who’ve grown up using the word as often as ‘he’ or ‘she’ (or ‘bitch’, which is an entirely different story altogether), there’d be a gap–a ‘nigger’-shaped hole to fill, if you will–in the space the word once occupied. Filling that space is difficult, as any woman in a perpetually-abusive on-again-off-again relationship will tell you.

The biggest problem is wanting to change. It’s one of the biggest steps, which I’m sure is covered in any other 12-step program. Beyond that, the main reason I’m writing this post is to offer up some alternatives that may have an easy time working themselves into that negative space (no pun intended…?).

First,

the words to watch out for, especially in written form:

  • nigga – the old stand-by these days. No black person in their right mind would ever actually pronounce the ’-er’ in nigger, although suffice it to say that, before probably the Last Poets, nobody ever thought of the word actually being spelled with an ‘a’. It was all accent, so it was always just an accented version of  ’-er’. Don’t front. The fact that the transition to ’-a’ is even elaborated upon speaks volumes about our inborn disgust of the word, and we need to acknowledge that as a reality.
  • nikka/nukka – a cooler and more sly way of pulling it off, however poorly. At this point, it’s worth mentioning that any word spoken towards a black person that starts with ‘ni-’ and ends in an ’-a’ sound is probably a derivative (e.g., nicca, written as ni99a, nigguh, nigah, etc.)
  • nig – nope. Don’t do it.
  • ninja – now, here’s one that’s come about in only the last few years. I think mainly black bloggers (and their commenters) have started this trend, but none the less, it’s kinda catchy. I mean, in Internet culture, a ninja is actually a praise of skill and cunning. But don’t let that connotation fool you: ninja is just as cancerous. As stated before, it is a derivative–you know people didn’t use it for the aforementioned meaning. You have Code Ninjas, PR Ninjas, Sigma Six Ninjas, and then you have actual Ninjas (the warriors of feudal Japan). Which one of those do you think our ‘ninja’ is related to? Answer: none. Moving on.
  • nizzle – I’m not even going to honor this one with a description.

So,

what are the proper alternatives? What can we do to wash our tongues of this foul slander and libel? Well, here are my suggestions (Note: they all already exist):

  • Brother/Sister – come on, people, this is the obvious one. Just like many other words that end in ’-er’, we’ll most certainly have our ’-a’ twang to throw on it…but it’s still one of the most positive subversives of the big N that we have. It’s endearing, and thinking about its meaning leads us to a place of peace, tolerance, and ultimately inclusion that we’ve been missing in our oft-divided culture for seemingly HUNDREDS of years (sorry every other culture out there; we’ll get around to being inclusive with y’all once we take care of home first). It’s worth  mentioning that loads of machismo black guys consider ‘brother/brotha’ corny. That’s gonna have to change in order for this to work. THAT is also another discussion altogether.
  • Bruh/Sis – an even more twanged-out version of ‘brother’, and a shortened version of ‘sister’, which have seen their own tours of duty through a portion of the black community–the ‘greek’ portion. Fraternities and Sororities are structurally built on the idea of brotherhood/sisterhood, and so it stands to reason that these permutations are functional ones, much in the way they could be in real life. To not sound so…southern…one can simply go with ’Bro’, the white frat-boy’s version of the word that we most likely initiated into our lexicon some time in the past. On the other hand, I’ve run into my fair share of Sisters that don’t like to be called ‘sis’ by a non-family member. Note: please do NOT use ‘bro-ham’. That’s wack.
  • Man/Girl – dry as it may sound, “my man” sounds much less cringe-worthy than “my nigga”. Of course, because neither women nor men tend to use ‘woman’ when addressing a female loved one (something about women wanting to be seen as ‘forever young’), we have the more cutesy ‘girl’ variation, which also rolls off the tongue better. Substituting ‘man’ for ‘boy’ may be a choice of the more feminist-minded ladies out there, if only for the sake of equality/belittlement.
  • Cat – an old throwback from the days of Jazz and Soul. Rappers still use this now (myself included)…maybe to a fault, but it’s better than the alternative to the alternative. This term is pretty universal, so that’s part of the reason it has stood the test of time.
  • Dude/Duke – the former, a standard salutation with the younger generations (<40). The latter, a New York-based salutation that derived from I don’t know what.
  • Guy/Chick – while the latter is not universally accepted among all women, it’s still innocuous in relative terms.
  • Dog – I mean…we’re scraping the barrel here. This one is definitely not an asexual salutation, but it can work in some direct cases. You don’t have to use one of these all of the time. Hopefully you’d want to diversify your vocab. Dogs are man(kind)’s best friend, so that’s where this comes from.

Bottom line is this: things that don’t live don’t die. Memories are said to live, but the only thing keeping them remembered is an active mind. Abstract ideas can be forgotten and will therefore cease to exist. If you run enough clean water into a bucket full of dirty water, eventually the bucket will be filled with clean water.