“Ball so hard mothafuckas wanna fine me”

We’re dancing with wild, glorious abandon. It’s the best environment for dancing. Only good friends are around and everyone’s flailing about happily without worrying if anyone is watching them. We’re barking the words to the song – we can’t rap, not really, but that’s irrelevant right now. Then-

“First niggas gotta find me”

It’s understood that you (blonde hair-blue eyes-pale skin) choose to keep politely silent, replace the incendiary word with your own little radio edit, while I (unruly hair- dark eyes – black skin) can keep belting out the lyrics. It’s obvious why and we hardly notice, definitely don’t talk about it. But in the back of my mind, I can’t help but wonder why my looks give me this kind of license. Does it matter that my parents came over here from Sudan in 1991? Does it matter that we never had to worry about lynching or that we never marched for civil rights?  Should that make a difference?

“Show me why you deserve to have it all”

The truth of it is, I don’t have that shared history. I don’t know if I have a right to use a slur when neither I, nor my ancestors, ever had to face it with its original force. I mean, there has to be something more than just the superficial that gives you special access to certain words. If the purpose of using a hateful word so casually is to reclaim it, to remove its power by owning it – where do I come into the picture? I am not the oppressor, who originally used the word to inflict pain but I’m not really the oppressed, either. I’ve always struggled with finding my place within America’s strictly enforced racial divisions. Because I am Sudanese, I am African as well as American. But am I allowed to be African American? (“You’re not really black,” I’ve been told on more than one occasion.) What is African American, really? Culture definitely plays a huge role and I can’t share in that. My familial traditions are very firmly Sudanese. Without the heritage, without the shared religious beliefs and culture, maybe I too should perform my own censorship when singing along.

“Doctors say I’m the illest/ ‘Cause I’m suffering from realness”

Or maybe I’ve somehow earned the right to say nigga. Maybe I paid for it in the hours spent straightening my hair, the childhood spent fending off awkward glances when we studied slavery and the civil war. Maybe I paid for it during the last couple of weeks in high school when people learned I would be attending Princeton, and the words “affirmative action” started getting tossed around (I turned “really black” really quickly). I’ve got a lifetime of being continually underestimated, of never having anything made to fit me, of playing with dolls and princesses that look nothing like me, and that has to count for something. Or maybe it really does only matter what you look like. No one is going to glance at me and decide to try and analyze my culture, heritage, and roots. They look at me and they see black. Is that all that’s needed?

“That shit cray”

You can never divorce a race from its past and you can never completely divorce a word from its historical context. And that past will never be my past. That context will never apply to me. But in the present, in the here and now, nigga has a different meaning. And in the present, in the here and now, I am an equal victim of whatever systematic oppression African Americans face. I will no longer let my identity be reassigned at others’ convenience. I’m going to be really black all the time, not just when it makes easier for the world to explain me away. And I think that might be enough. I think I’ll just keep rapping along.

“Got my niggas in Paris/ And they going gorillas”

-Zeena Mubarak