My First Time

by Driadonna Roland

It happened when I was 16-years-old, somewhere around my junior year of high school. I’d just gotten off work in a city far from the comforts of my own neighborhood and was waiting for my supervisor to lock up. Suddenly, a group of white boys whizzed by on bikes and started yelling that word …”nigger.” I looked around. Yes, they were talking to me. It was over as quickly as it happened. As I stared in the direction of the ignorant tribe, zooming high off the fumes of their crime, I searched my mind for a response. First came shock, followed by humiliation. Even a little sadness. I rode home in silence.

Our generation has taken for granted that we are only a few decades removed from a time when the “n” word was tantamount to a death threat. As my friend said when that word was hurled at her during her senior trip, “My reaction was shock and then repulsion and disgust. It was 2005!” We just never thought that someone would be calling us niggers. That still happens? As my friend and I discovered that we aren’t the only folks we know to have experience such an indignity, the answer is obviously yes.

So as antiquated as it seems, is this a word we still have to prepare our children to hear? Much like little black boys are told to cooperate and not make any sudden moves when pulled over by police, will you have to practice your child’s response to this ugly term?  Perhaps it depends on if it’s still being passed down as a hate slur on the other side of the tracks.

“The first time I was called the “n” word was in Pre-K by a girl named Leslie,” said my friend Mandy. “She said to me, ‘My skin is light, your skin is dark and that makes you a nigger.’ ”

The NAACP’s ceremonious burial of the word in 2007 was cute. But even our so-called “thought leaders” have disagreed with this act. As black America seems to have only two modern philosophers, Dr. Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson, in a C-Span panel the latter defended what he calls his “promiscuous” use of the word by reasoning that nigger applies to any group of people who have been oppressed by the majority, and particularly by American capitalism.

“We got to understand nigga is a global phenomenon … I understand that as a nigga in America, there are niggas throughout the world … Can we connect through our core niggerdom to understand the vicious ways in which we have been subverted?” Dyson said.

Indeed, the word is used so colloquially that some of us celebrate it as an example of the resilience black people have and our ability to turn a negative into a positive. Just as women have turned the word “bitch” into a term of endearment – and men have even managed to make calling a woman “a bad bitch” the highest form of praise – we’ve mutated the word nigger into an acceptable form, nigga – because dropping the “er” simultaneously erases its past intent, right?

I, too, found Chris Rock’s sketch hilarious when he said he loved black people but hated niggas. I would not deny guilt for acting as though the n word doesn’t apply to me, but to my “cousins” that barbecue on the front lawn, wear do-rags to WalMart and buy rims with their tax refunds.

In a more serious interview  on the Bravo show Inside the Actors Studio, Rock reasoned that black people’s taking ownership of the n word was “the same philosophy as soul food. They gave us the scraps and we made it into cuisine. And we took this word and we made it into poetry.”

He acknowledged that “nigger is the nitroglycerine of words, and in the wrong hands it can hurt,” but went on to say that if given to the right scientist – a rank of comedians that includes Dave Chapelle and Richard Pryor – the word takes the same artistic value it did in a Mark Twain novel.

However in January, a version of the classic Mark Twain novel Huckleberry Finn was published that replaced the word nigger with slave.

Auburn University English professor Alan Gribben proposed the idea to publisher NewSouth Books because in his words, “even at the level of college and graduate school, students are capable of resenting textual encounters with this racial appellative.”

Though reading the word in print (219 times!) did sting when I was forced to read this novel in high school, removing it from a novel written in 1885 robs the reader of the context that the term was part of everyday vernacular in that time. Even though Finn was friends with a black man, as a child he heard the word used so much he thought it was the correct way to refer to black people. But given the way it is integrated in our lives now, the next generation may not see this as abnormal. Have things really come full circle?

As another friend put it:

“The first time I was called the “n” word was probably by one of my “n” words. ‘My nigga’ had long become a term of endearment before all of us were born. So will anyone ever remember the first time someone called them a nigga? Will they remember their nigga calling them a nigga? Nope.”

This friend has a spot-on sense of satire, but I recall the paralytic effect the word had when it was hurled at me on the street nearly 10 years ago with absolute clarity. Chances are I will never forget how it felt when it transcended the inside of a funny joke in a movie to become an ugly descriptor by complete strangers.

 Have you ever been called a “nigger”? If so, did it change your feelings about “nigga”? Can we really separate the two? Speak! 

  • CaliforniaDreaming86

    I’ve never been called a Nigger. Nigga = Nigger. Nigger = Nigga. I don’t believe pronouncing the word differently changes the meaning.

  • June

    I was called nigger twice in my life, and I will never forget the memories. The sting still lingers today.

    During a heated argument with my mom, she blurted out that she should have never had a baby by a nigger (my mother is Japanese). This wounded me deeply. She claimed afterwards that she didn’t mean it, but the damage was already done. Her words said to me at that moment that she intended to hurt me, to humiliate me, to make it clear that I would never be as good as an Asian. This coupled with years of her putting clothes pins on my nose, and the constant ridicule of my thick thighs and brown skin made me feel “not as pretty as an Asian”. Needless to say, after years of this, I made the hard decision to cut her out of my life. We have been estranged for six years now. But, I did this because in order for me to learn how to be comfortable in my own skin, I needed to purge the poison that was destroying my self-worth.

    Despite having going to college, and becoming an active part of society, I still to her looked like a nigger.

    The second time, I was living in Santa Barbara. It was a beautiful day, and I had a little money so I was out and about doing light shopping downtown. I was peering into a window, I can’t recall what I was looking at, when I heard “Damn niggers are taking over Santa Barbara”. At first I was confused, I turned around to see what was going on. Right before me were two elderly white women looking back at me. I believe they were mother and daughter. The daughter looked embarrassed. Her mother on the other hand stared at me with contempt, as if to say, “yeah, I said it”. The daughter quickly shuffled her mother onward, and I was left there feeling shock, humiliated and confused. This was 2003.

    They were well dressed. The mother had a white suit on with Chanel necklaces hanging from her wrinkled neck. She carried bags from high-end retailers. I kept trying to convince myself that I had it all wrong. That these were not red-necks from the township of Lynchburg.

    My day was ruined. I walked back to my car desperately fighting back the tears. Through the crowd I walked with ringing ears and a heavy heart.

    That woman today probably doesn’t even remember her toxic words, but I remember…

  • Chica

    I was 10 years old when I was first called the n=word. I attended a predominately white, Catholic school. I was standing in line waiting to go to science, minding my business. This girl Kelsey Smith, who had been harassing me for 3 years came up to me and said “Hi nigger”. This was 2005. I was so shocked and didn’t know what to do. Being the only black girl in my class, altercations were often blamed on me. So I stayed silent. I told my mom and she went up to the school, but no real punishment was given. This incident makes me shy away from using the n-word in my vernacular. The n-word started off as a hurtful word and still is. Just because you’re of a darker skin color, doesn’t mean you have the authority to use it.

  • edub

    To my face, I was called a “nigger” once. I was in a high school English class and was having a conversation with one of my friends when she asked me what I thought of a guy sitting next to me. I responded by saying that he was cute–in an “Alvin and the Chipmunks” kind of way. He must have heard me because he went OFF.

    For the next two minutes, he called me every name in the book including the N-word. What was even more hurtful is that not one of my friends stepped in to defend me.

    I was always taught that words should never hurt you but in that instance and for a long time after, those words cut me so deeply. I just remember stumbling home, running a tub full of warm water, and sitting in that tub for hours, trying to get over the shock of what had happened earlier. Honestly speaking, I think that that day, I lost a large amount of faith in people. Even to this day, when I think about it, it still hurts.

  • JaeBee

    So sorry to hear about your relationship with your mom. It’s sad when parents can’t be the mature adults they are supposed to be and raise their children to have high self esteem. As for that old white woman–she’ll get hers one day. What goes around always comes back around, though I hope that when hers does it’ll be a black person whose there to help her out (and make her feel worse about how she’s acted towards them in the past).

  • Jennifer

    Your stories broke my heart. I just want to hug you. I am so sorry to hear about your mom.

  • Black Bot

    I’ve never been called that. Although, I remember in elementary school that two kids called me “black” or “black person” as if it were an insult on two different occasions. I guess they wanted to say it, didn’t want to face the consequences of doing so.

  • Timcampi

    “Finn was friends with a black man, as a child he heard the word used so much he thought it was the correct way to refer to black people.”

    Mm… it was less of this and more the fact that it was the lexicon of the day. Twain was a known proponent of freedmen. Nigger Jim is akin to the character of Shylock; although there weren’t many Jews in Europe during that time (they’d been kicked out), everyone knew that the Jew was a villainous usurper. Twain’s use of the word nigger is more intelligent than that example and stands as an oxymoron. Nigger Jim is able to become friends with Huck, who courageously defends him when sailing down the river. Sort of like a “my god, that young man is defending a negro?” sort of Inception-like kickback for those who lived in the early 1900s. But whatever, you’re mileage may vary.

    Anyway I’ve been called the word nigger twice in my life. Once in the 7th grade when walking to my bus, they spat and threw forks at me. And again this year on the very last day of school. Both surprised me because I had conveniently forgot I was black. Going to predominantly white, and tolerant schools will do that to you.

  • http://none Kit

    My thoughts exactly.
    The sooner this “term of endearment” dies, the better.

  • Clnmike

    For my generation we heard the word or had it thrown at us more frequently than the younger ones did. I’m just as surprised to hear them say they were they called that as much as they were. But back than we anticipated it and reacted combative (once you got over the shock) to it once it came out. On the one hand it is good to hear that there black people who have never heard the word used against them a sign of better times. On the other hand you feel kind of sad for them cause you know that the word has not gone away because racist have not so they won’t know how to deal with it.

  • taylor

    I’m a virgin to it. And I pray it never happens because I am afraid of how I will respond. That word can only be said with hate.

  • Leonie UK

    Summer of 2005, me and a friend went to a late night rave on the outskirts of east London, riding into Essex. we were dressed to impress and due to meet with my male cousins and his friends. A group of hard cuffed skinheads came out of nowhere, and started tauting us and making monkey noises, shouting “nigger sluts” and doing monkey moves. We were in the darkness of the underground, it was late and we were very alone. They were on the other side of the platform, but felt like they were nano steps away from my face. Even now I can still feel the sensation from that time.

    When we walked out of the station and meet up with my cousin and his friends less than 10 minutes later, they laughed their asses off and said what did you expect ” this is Essex” . To my South London metropolitian free spirited mind, London was free of this nuisance. But that night/early morning I learnt a valuable lesson my cousin and his friends encounted everyday. I stopped lisening to Hiphop for a long time after this event, I kid you not. I’m sure this is why I started to attend more outdoor festivals and rock out harder than ever.

    Funny enough we spent the weekend In essex, and on the way back into South London, two white guys offered us chewing gum and talked to us about a local celebrity on our carriage. Both me and my freind said at the same time ” Glad to be back home”.

  • Jennifer

    The first and only time I was called the n-word was in 1998. I used to work part time at the Eatons in Eaton Centre in Toronto (used to be a big department store in Canada) while in college. My parents insisted, despite my pleading, that I work part time beginning in my third year. A shopper asked me a question and I didn’t know the answer so I asked her to hold on while I ask someone else. As I turned to leave, she muttered “this is why this place is going to hell. They are hiring too many n****rs.” Even today, while I remember it, it didn’t hurt my feelings. I think it never really impacted me because my manager and coworkers, who were white, really went in on her. They even called security to escort her out! If everyone around was silent or pretending they didn’t hear it, then my feelings may have been different. Their reaction allowed me to categorize the customer as crazy.

    I have been called a black c**t. In that instance it was in a parking garage and no one else was around so I didn’t react either. I was just trying to get into the mall and around other people since he started following me.

  • delilah

    i never been called the n-word by a nonblack person.. i fear that day that happens though

  • I got sense!

    I agree with both of you.

  • c0c0puffz

    I can’t remember the exact age but I am sure I have been called a couple derogatory names being the only black girl in the neighborhood and school. When I was in 2nd grade it was blackie or darkie. No one would say it to my face.

  • sli

    Wow, that story about your Mom was deep. I don’t know if I would ever be able to get over that. Even though it probably hurt like hell, I think it was a good decision to separate yourself from her. I hope you can eventually find peace with that relationship, whether you all reconcile or not.

  • Leanee Beanie

    Nobody has ever called me the n-word. At least not to my face.

    To me there is no difference between the -igger and -igga.

    I feel like this article was posted earlier this year deja vu.

  • LainaLain

    I’m black and I feel so uncomfortable saying the word out loud. I rarely even use it now. I’m trying to completely stop. So far I’m succeeding.

  • Pepper

    I was called the “n” word my freshman year of college. It was at NC State University and it was 1997. I will never forget. A group of friends and I, all of us female, were walking back to our dorm and a truckload of Caucasian men rolled up to us and said “How are y’all niggers doing tonight?” It was shocking, we all just stood there and didn’t know what to say. Not the way you want to start off one of the biggest periods of your life. We felt humiliated and couldn’t believe that our “peers” could say something like that. I will never forget that feeling.

  • KingJason

    My mother taught me “why do you give those people power over you”? and I was never bothered by what white folks said (or thought) again.

  • MissRae

    I think that if people read some of the stories you all put on here would show those to think twice about using the N word as endearment.

  • LemonNLime

    I don’t use the word and I don’t associate with people that think it is OK to use it. I have never been called that word by anyone although in high school some biracial kid kept trying to explain how it was OK for us to use the word with one another because we were black to which I was like: 1. It is a horrible word there is no justification for it’s use period, 2. you are only half black so your justification is flawed from your point of view anyway, and 3. if you call me that word, even causally, trust I will report it to the principal. After that conversation it was never mentioned again.

    My sister did experience it though. In high school and white girl called her that word and my sister, who already has a bad temper, in the middle of class jump up and choked the girl in the middle of class. Football players had to pull my sister off of this girl. My sister was sent to the principal’s office along with the girl and my sister got detention and was forced to take anger management. She said it was good though because she got cupcake and it kept her from slashing the tires on that girls car. Oh the girl was punished to but I think she had other problems to deal with because there was a sizable population of black people at that school…

  • TLS

    JaeBee, Jennifer and sli took the words right out of my mouth. Your stories pulled at my heart strings. The mother story really got to me. I just want to hug you and tell you’re better than your bad experiences. I hope that you can mend your relationship with your mother one day. Forget about that tired old woman outside of the store. I know it hurt you and I’m sorry but she’ll get hers.

  • fuchsia

    I’ll never forget the first time, or the last time I was called the N word. I was 7 years old on the playground at a predominantly white school. A little white boy ran up on me and hurled the word at me like a rock. I had no idea how to respond, all I knew was that it was wrong. I told my older cousins about the incident over the weekend and they promptly gave me an education on hateful terms that I could use against white folks if it should happen again.

    It didn’t happen again. Not until 2008 when I was the manager at a retail store. A white woman and her son (he looked to be about 3 years old) were at the register and I was ringing them up. The little boy pointed in surprise at me and said “Look mommy it’s a nigger girl!” I was shocked and disgusted yet I found myself frozen for a moment. After they left I felt guilty about my inaction. What I found interesting was that the woman didn’t look the slightest bit embarrassed. Almost as if she had taught her son well. I felt sorry the child.

  • binks

    Oh wow, my heart broke for you as well reading the story about your mother : ( I don’t think of the word nigga or whatever you want to call it or change it as a term of endearment it all derives from nigger. I think it is an ugly word point blank and trying to pretty it up is useless. But I heard it use a lot of times in my life one when I was in high school and a guy said why do niggers have to go to this school I wish it was all white (granted this was 2002), secondly when I was in petco of all places, and thirdly by a janitor at my university. So I can’t use it or accept it when so many others STILL use it as a tool for hatred and hurt.

  • Barry

    Can someone give me an example of other ethnic groups embracing derogatory ethnic slurs used to describe them?
    Jews, various hispanic groups ( Mexicians, Puerto Ricans,etc) Africans, Asians, Native Peoples of all types and on and on.
    Which ones other than American Blacks find turning a slur describing their group around and finding acceptable usages for it to be cool, embracing the slur thinking it lessens it’s meaning and original intent?
    Which groups besides the African American have enlightened individuals from their tribes, clans, singing and writing the virtues of a slur to describe their people?
    A Mexican using Wetback to describe his brothers and sisters in song.
    A Puerto Rican calling his family and friends “My Spic” as a term of endearment.
    A Jew seeing a friend and calling out ” Hello my Kite”.
    Do a Google search of derogatory ethnic slurs and see the amount and types of words that thinking humans come up with to describe a fellow human.
    Those self appointed leaders or as one writer says Selected Leaders of the African American community, of our thought, of our entertainment need to do some serious thinking and soul searching about the use of the word Nigger and the desire of some to embrace it, turn its meaning around.
    One other thing.
    The word is Nigger
    Not the N- word.
    It is what it is and should be pronounced as it is.

  • Amura02

    i like ur train of thought!! Big ups to your mom to letting you know that other people’s opinion dont matter!!!!

  • KJ73

    I never said the word (as an endearment or otherwise) till I started watching The Boondocks. I was such a fan of the show and watched it so often that I got desensitized and the word eventually made its way into my vocabulary, even though I was against using the word. Now I say it all the time, but I am trying really hard to stop. But once you get started it’s hard… it rolls off the tongue so easily, especially when you’re heated. Plus the word is everywhere. Catchy songs, black movies, blogs… everywhere.

    A real eye-opener came when I was watching The Friday After Next movie on what I thought was BET. It was actually playing on Oxygen, a channel that has nothing to do with Black people. I was SOOOOOO embarrassed and angry. They did not bleep out any of the n words and in that movie they say it like every other word. If it were on BET, I wouldn’t have liked it but thats what i expect from BET. but on Oxygen … a channel that caters to white women…? 4 real?

    We need to get rid of this word ASAP. I respect what the NAACP tried to do. They just needed to get some younger more influential people on board. But trying to get the today’s artists to come out an band together on something that matters (something pro-black that might mess up their cross-over, mainstream appeal) is asking too much.

  • adiatc

    I am 32 years old I was called ‘nigger’ for the first time 2 days ago. I was on the bus late at night on my way back from a friend’s house. My sister and I were riding together. We wear dressed very well as we had just come from a going away party. As this white guy gets off the back of the bus, he turns and says to us, “you are two of the ugliest, nigger bitches I have ever seen in my life.”

    Now, mind you, this man was drunk and probably had 5 teeth in his mouth altogether. My sister was in total shock and got angry. I said to her, “what that man really meant to say is that we were the two most beautiful Black women he had ever seen in his life.” I further explained to her that that man was probably at the lowest of the low and it angered him that he saw two Black women that were dressed to the hilt and were doing well.

    I guess I didn’t react in anger because, I have high self esteem. I don’t let what others say or think about me dictate how I feel about myself. Trust me, it took a long time to get to that point. I do understand that word is very hurtful to us, however. But I determine the weight of what someone says to me. It’s not what they call me, it’s what I answer to.

  • NaturallyHairObsessed

    I have heard Mexican and Asian refer to each other as Sp*c and Ch*nk. Just saying. It does happen.

  • Rastaman

    Shows how little you do know about other races or ethnic groups. Irish folks call each other micks, Jews call each other kikes, Ricans call each other Spics endearingly and otherwise.

    If you want to say black folks or the only group who has commercialized their own derogatory terms then yes you are probably more right than not. But even under that circumstance I think we would do better to widen our perspective on meaning and context. I personally never use the word but it also does not repulse me either.

  • Vix

    I don’t like the n word, no matter how it’s pronounced and no matter if another black person says it. I’m still trying to get some people in my family to stop saying it while I’m hanging with them.

    My first and only time was almost 4 years ago, when I worked at a haunted mansion in Calhoun, LA during my sophomore year of college. I was trying to scare this old, fat, ugly (still mad I guess) white man and he turned around, not surprised or scared, and said, “It’s a nigger.”

    At first, I was shocked, then I got VERY angry. Since there was a ‘no attacking the customers’ policy, I couldn’t kick his ass like I wanted to. Thankfully, I saw him get scared at the next turn, so it made me feel a little better. While working there, I also heard someone say ‘there’s one of THOSE people’, too.

    If anything, my experience there taught me how to brush off hateful words and keep my self-esteem raised. I also met my then and current boyfriend while working there. ;)

  • Girl

    Has never happened to me. To those who have heard it esp from a white woman the c-word will always shut them up. I know how much they hate itr and I use it when they really annoy me.

    The girl with the nasty sorry to hear that. I probably would have responded with something really nasty..then again, that’s just how I do. even if I end up hurt later on I WILL make sure we are both hurt. childish? perhaps but it is what it is

  • June

    Thank you all for your kind words. Although these were painful memories, it is nice to know that the bad and the wicked can be negated by the good and the benevolent.

  • worldviewes

    I have never been called that by another race – but still the word is the same. I honetsly think that this word will NEVER go away. Someone somewhere will dig it back up – just as its said history has a way of repeating itself! The only thing we can do is not teach it to the next generation as acceptable. And there are so many people posting that they were in shock – then angry – which is all understandable. But there was one that posted “Its not what you are called but what you answer to” – so great that she could take the high road. In some cases if you don’t “defend” your self and “Our people” – you are looked at as less black by black people while being too “niggerish” to white people. There’s just no winning with this situation.
    To June – bless your aching heart! You didn’t choose your parents they chose each other. With that being said no matter what the issue – you should always feel safe & comfortable with your own mother when you can’t find it any where else. Pray for her to find the knowledge she needs to become a better woman & mother. It is ALWAYS a beautiful thing when other women comfort other women the way these other ladies have – especially in a world that tries so hard to teach us to despise each other.

  • Jade

    Anyone notice how these groups of WM get bold saying the “n” word mostly to BW?

  • adiatc

    OMG!!! Yes!!! That man would not have said it to a Black man. And I failed to mention that he was saying it as he was stepping off the bus! What a coward!!

  • Hey!

    The first time I was called the N word was hilarious. I was walking on my college campus and a group of local rednecks on screamed it out to my boyfriend and I while hanging from a red truck. It was so cliche and expected that we just laughed.

  • Jenn

    My interpretation is that appropriation is that it’s a defence mechanism. We all remember when we were little being called a freak of some sort and often our response was-

    “I am a freak. You’re right. You can hurt me. See, I use that word too, it doesn’t hurt, really” We tried to take away their power by accepting their insults until they lost interest, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t an insult. We were just telling ourselves it was okay until we believed it.But if our ten year old selves were honest the words probably did hurt.

    Even if the word doesn’t hurt personally, using it or accepting it perpetuates language that *does* hurt some people.

  • lisa

    before i moved to the usa i always said that if a someone called me the “n word” that i would punch them square in the mouth. but after i moved here i realized that as much as i would like to i cant go around punching white people her and there. never been called a nigger but if i am i will turn to my lady maya angelou who wrote “you may write me down in history with your bitter twisted lies, you may trod me in the very dirt but still like dust i’ll rise”

  • Melinda

    I’ve never been called the N-word to my face.White people in Canada are passive racist.

  • beanie

    You should have laughed and tossed a dollar bill at him and told him to go buy another 5th of whatever! LOL!

  • justsaying_it

    I haven’t been called that, but In the internet world white people and black people, and others say it freely. White people, and other non-white minorities say it because they know that’s the only thing they can say that will break a black person, and/or set them off. It is amazing how one word can have such control over a person. It’s equivalent to being in a abusive relationship with someone, and they always know that one thing that keep you afraid and your self esteem low.

    Black people have been in a abusive relationship with white & other minorities people for a long time, and maybe it’s time to have the courage to leave, and not allow yourself to be abused. White people don’t get bothered by someone calling them names, and that’s the very same arrogant attitude black people need to get.

    Why black people say it? I don’t know, but it’s like being called stupid your whole life, and you get comfortable with people you calling you that, and make the word stupid your new name like it’s cool.

  • guest


  • Alexandra

    Well, I’ve never been called a nigger aloud by a non-Black person, but a few years ago I was driving and an older woman in her car called me a “nig” for not letting her cut in front of me. She just pulled up beside my car at the next stoplight, said “You should’ve let me go you dumb nig” :-/ She quickly rolled her window and up sped off taking the red light. Whatever she was trying to say wasn’t complete, I just stared at her.
    But what else could she have wanted to say. Nig….? I don’t know what race she was though.

  • mymy

    yep he sees two black women dressed well and doing well and he doesn’t understand how that is right compared to the horrible place he is in life. I would have laughed in his face.

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