As a Black American I often have experiences that are a little bit different from the average American student abroad. There have been more than a few times when people have mistaken me for a local and addressed me Xhosa or Zulu (in Durban). Once people realize I'm American however, a whole different line of curiosity arises.
Many South Africans who I have encountered consume a lot of American, particularly Black American culture. This sometimes puts me in uncomfortable situations because many of them have met very few Black Americans and therefore they are unsure exactly how to deal with me as a person. In my time here I have answered countless questions about rap music, the "hood", "baby mamas", or any other number of Black American stereotypes. Sometimes I just try to change the subject and sometimes I try to give a response that is accurate in acknowledging the truth of certain stereotypes but also their inability to fully articulate the Black American experience.
One such encounter happened recently while I was on campus at UCT. A student who I knew saw me and approached. The guy was someone who I met early during my stay in South Africa and had talked to a few times but we are not very close. In the past he has disclosed to me that he is a fan of hip-hop and has asked me various questions about hip-hop and other facets of black life in the US. Often these questions skirted on uncomfortable subjects or phrasing for me but this particular time was the worst.
As we talked I told him about my recent trip back to the US. He was intrigued and asked if I went back to the "hood." He was also curious as to if I lived in the "hood" with "real niggas." This question made me slightly uncomfortable and I tried to explain to him that where I lived was a somewhat rough part of town but not the worst. I also explained that there were people who would fit his idea of "real niggas" in my neighborhood (drug dealer, gangsters, etc.) but there were also many hardworking legitimate people as well. I tried to also explain that even these people aren't terrible people (or arbitrators of a glamorous lifestyle) but rather young people caught in a complicated system of disenfranchisement, lack of resources, and socioeconomic factors.
My friend thought for a second before brushing that off and honing in on the final part of his question. I think he noticed the discomfort in my face when he had asked the initial questions because then he asked me if I was offended by his use of the word "nigga." He repeated the word a few more times in a few sentences and then restated the question. He pointed out that he was also black and therefore presumably had similar ownership of the word.
This question really made me think. I was uncomfortable when he said nigga. Without a doubt I was and I didn't totally understand why. I use the word in my own speech and have plenty of friends who do as well (black friends). Even many of my friends back home who are African-born or have African parents use it and I don't feel any of the same discomfort. My rationale at the time was that the word occupies a particular place in the American historical context and more broadly the experience of Diasporic people of African descent in the Western Hemisphere. I tried to calmly explain my discomfort to him and also my reasoning. I wanted him to at least begin to understand the psychological burden of being called that word as a kid in hate, of having it scrawled across the wall of your school. I wanted him to also understand what it meant to have a grandmother call you that word with affection or to have boys on the playground knight you with it once you earned their respect through a game of basketball. The word isn't something that comes and goes easy. Its history is as complicated and contradictory as America itself.
I know all that I just said was a little verbose and I'm sure that's how it came off (and in a more rushed and nervous way at that). Even still, his response unsettled me further. He just started talking about the "K" word in South Africa and how they don't use it since apartheid's end. He tried to draw a parallel between the two words and their usage and history. I understood what he meant but I felt that he had missed the entire point of what I had said. It seemed like he had spent the time when I was responding to his query thinking about the next thing he would say rather than really listening. He might have listened to me in a nominal sense but he didn't really understand any of the things I had said. That probably bothered me more than anything. After the encounter I just tried to be polite and continue quickly along my way. I didn't know what else to do because it seemed like he wasn't in the right frame of mind to engage in a true dialogue at that point.