Question of the Month:

Explaining the Term "Red Nigger"

May 2006

Q:  What does the term "red nigger" really signify? What groups are racially categorized by this discriminatory term?

-- Christina Johnson, Big Rapids, Michigan

A:  The word nigger is rivaled only by the invective cunt as a term of opprobrium in the United States. Nigger, despite attempts to defang it, remains in many quarters a word thick with scornful reproach and contempt. It is common to place a word in front of nigger to create an insult toward a group, for example, Sand Nigger insults Arabs and Arab Americans; Boat Nigger, contemptuously refers to recently arrived Cuban Americans or anyone from the Caribbean seeking asylum in the United States; European Nigger and Potato Nigger are terms of scorn for poor Irish, especially new immigrants; Prairie Nigger, Timber Nigger, and Swamp Nigger are all insults against Native Americans; Rice Nigger, belittles persons of mixed Asian and African ancestry; Taco Nigger defames Mexicans, especially ones with dark skin; Snow Nigger and Ice Nigger denigrate Inuits; Rice Nigger and Slant-eyed Niggers are slurs directed at Asians; and, Nigger-lover is a derogatory term used to characterize whites who befriend blacks. Nigger is the ultimate racial insult.

The term Red Nigger has been used in several ways: as a racial diss against Native Americans or people with mixed Native American ancestry; as an insult against African Americans with light skin, regardless of their "ancestral mix"; and as denigration of Communists, almost exclusively ones with dark skin. In his entry, "Freedom Summer," the prominent blogger, Meteor Blades, reminiscences:

"In the small town of the South where I was born and lived until I was 9 years old, white people called us "red niggers." In truth, our family was a mix of Scottish, African-American and Seminole. Most of us were light-skinned enough to "pass white" when we rode up to Americus or Valdosta. This deception got us into places we couldn't otherwise have gone, like front row center at the movie theater instead of the "coloreds-only" balcony. Back home, however, where we were known, it was another story." See, www.dailykos.com/story/2004/3/20/725/36424.
Blades' experience is not surprising. In the 1950s and 1960s -- the years he was young in the American South -- Native Americans were often placed side-by-side or barely above African Americans on the racial hierarchy. Jim Crow laws and Jim Crow social etiquette often included prohibitions against "social equality" for so-called Indians. African Americans and Native Americans were denied "white" drinking fountains, cafes, restrooms, movie theatres, libraries, swimming pools, and buses. "Indians" were considered inferior to whites, and it was not uncommon to hear Native Americans referred to as Niggers or Red Niggers. Unfortunately, these slurs resurface when there are contemporary conflicts between whites and Native Americans.

Affirmative Apartheid It should also be noted that the modern white supremacist movement considers Native Americans to be one of many "mud people" threatening the "whiteness" of the United States. The white power band Vaginal Jesus recently gained notoriety with the album, "Affirmative Apartheid," distributed by Unholy Records. The album, with a growing underground following, includes the songs, "Million Monkey March," "Mandatory Abortion for Niggers," and "Indians are Red Nigger Skunks." Ironically, the band left Resistance Records (another white supremacist record distributor) because their songs were not considered hard-core racist.

In "The Garbage Man," an essay I wrote to explain why I collect racist objects, there is this quote:
"I bought my first racist object when I was 12 or 13. My memory of that event is not perfect. It was the early 1970s in Mobile, Alabama, the home of my youth. The item was small, probably a Mammy saltshaker. It must have been cheap because I never had much money. And, it must have been ugly because after I paid the dealer I threw the item to the ground, shattering it. It was not a political act; I, simply, hated it, if you can hate an object. I do not know if he scolded me, he almost certainly did. I was what folks in Mobile, blacks and whites, indelicately referred to as a "Red Nigger." In those days, in that place, he could have thrown that name at me, without incident."
In my youth, African Americans with lightly colored skin were often called matter-of-factly Red Negroes, or insultingly Red Niggers. The week before he was killed, Malcolm X was telephoned a death threat: "You are one dead Red Nigger." It would be hard to find a civil rights leader of mixed ancestry who did not hear the slur, Red Nigger, at some time.

There were many race/color-based terms for African Americans with light complexions: High Yellows, Low Browns, Redbones, for example. These terms, often pejorative, have been, in large part, replaced by value-neutral terms: multicultural, biracial, and multiracial. Today, the term Red Nigger is still used to insult light-skinned Americans of African descent; however, its usage is increasingly restricted to white racists and poor blacks.

The use of the pejorative Red Nigger to refer to Communists, especially black Communists, is increasingly rare; however, from the 1920s through the 1950s, it was common to hear black Communists -- for example, Claude McKay, Barry D. Amis, Cyril Briggs, Paul Robeson, and A. Phillip Randolph -- referred to as Red Niggers -- red, being a derogatory term for Communists, and nigger, of course, being the definitive opprobrium used to express deep-seated ill will against Africans and their American descendants.

I believe it is fitting to end this month's brief essay with an excerpt from Derek Walcott's The Schooner Flight:
I'm just a red nigger who love the sea.
I had a sound colonial education.
I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me,
and either I'm nobody, or I'm a nation.
Walcott, awarded the 1992 Nobel Prize for Literature, is a poet, playwright, a self-described "mulatto of style," -- in some quarters, he is considered a genius; in other places, he is, simply and dismissively considered a Red Nigger.

May 2006 response by David Pilgrim, Curator, Jim Crow Museum


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