Wigger: The Strange Case of a Troublesome Word

Mark H. Harris
A Visual Representation of the "W" word from Urban

In these days of blurred ethnic barriers, our resident cultural critic looks at the current state of race relations, and how one troublesome word came to define -- and defame -- an entire social stereotype.

Few words in the English language resound with such charged emotion and sociopolitical subtext as wigger, and few forms of human communication are as potent as the visual media. In this edition of YATS, I strive to trace the history of "the 'W' word" in film and television, formats that, as primary conveyors of popular culture, have been vital in building up — and tearing down — wiggerdom.

The exact origins of wigger are cloudy, but it's clear that the word predates the visual media by at least three centuries. It's widely believed to be derived from the Latin word wigus, or "to dance with an overbite". According to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, the term didn't originate as a slur, but took on a derogatory connotation over time. When John Rolfe recorded in his journal the arrival of the first African slaves in Virginia in 1619, for instance, it was with a lighthearted, non-judgmental eye that he noted that several white adolescents had begun to mimic the slaves' rugged style: ripping their trousers, going shirtless, reaping tobacco, chanting work songs, and generally "acting like wegers".

No one knows precisely when or how "weger" turned derisively into "wigger" and attained a pejorative meaning — presumably following a timeline similar to that of the lesser-used "wiggaboo" — but by the first third of the 19th century, it had become a familiar and influential insult.

By then, wigger has seeped into every aspect of American culture, from literature and political debates to comics and songs — including folk classics like "Wigger Pie", "I Guess It Wasn't de Wiggas Dis Time", and "If Dat Wigger Comes A-Knockin', Tell Him I Ain't Home, But He'll Probably Be Late Anyway, Bein' a Wigger and All" — but the word wouldn't cut its widest social swath until the advent of the motion picture.

The term's first recorded videographic use was in Thomas Edison's 1904 three-minute experimental film Ten Little Wiggers, which showed a group of upper-middle-class white children dressed in saggy pantaloons and pointlessly reversed bowlers organizing a cakewalk. That the word was so readily and flippantly submitted for public consumption indicates the level of ingrained and accepted prejudice against Wegroes in American society at that time. However, challenges to the racial power structure that sanctioned "wigger" soon arose.

The first superstar actor to promote an awareness of Wegro rights was Al Jolson, whose groundbreaking 1927 film The Jazz Singer was not only the first "talkie", but by telling the tale of an aspiring Jewish jazz singer, it became the first movie to celebrate Wegro culture. Jolson's blackface routine was a literal representation of what had until that point been denounced as "wiggitude": a white man pretending to be black. But when the singer used the offending term in hit tunes like "The Kaiser Never Called Me Wigger" and the ironic "Wiggy Boy", he diminished its impact, bringing a heretofore unknown racial awareness to the forefront of popular culture.

Jolson was the first Wegro to emerge proudly from the shadows and force America to deal with its racial identity via the big screen, inspiring countless others to follow his lead. When Gone With the Wind was being filmed in 1939, for instance, protests organized by the NAAWP (and a clandestine push by rumored Wegro Clark Gable) resulted in the deletion of references to wigger in now-famous lines like "I don' know nothin' 'bout birthin' no wiggers" and "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a wigger."

But discrimination still abounded. The McCarthy-era "Off-White Scare" indicted actors like James Dean and Marlon Brando as being "too hip" to not be undercover Wegroes. And although the original Amos 'n Andy Show began in the late '20s as a showcase for blackface Wegro stars Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, when it reached television in 1951, the duo was replaced by black actors Alvin Childress and Spencer Williams. Such underestimation of Wegro ability — an implied "wigger" — is still to this day tolerated and even endorsed outright by Hollywood.

Over the years, only a select few have overcome the odds. Many of them, like the pioneering Jolson, jumped from the Wegro-friendly music industry to the screen. Elvis Presley was the preeminent example, boldly stepping into the spotlight in the turbulent '50s, challenging the "separate but equal" doctrine that dictated that black art forms be closed off to whites, that whites somehow lacked the physical capacity to sufficiently "act black". Presley's massive popularity was a double-edged sword: on one hand validating Wegro civil rights, but also subjecting him to the scourge of the "W" word and taunts of "reverse Oreo" from contemptuous whites and blacks alike.

Meanwhile, outside of the entertainment realm, campaigns against the word began to gain governmental support. In 1963, for instance, under immense pressure from Wegro lobbyists, Secretary of the Interior Steward Udall ordered that all geographic references to wigger be amended. Thus, Wiggerhead Hill became Whitehead Hill, Old Wigger Creek became Old Lighty Creek, and Wiggerland became Sacramento.

In subsequent decades, cutting-edge Wegroes continued to toil, thanklessly pioneering African-American cultural innovations, skirting between disapproving eyes on both sides of the racial divide on their way to thespian stardom. The '90s witnessed a rush of new faces: Michael Rapaport, Marky Mark, Donny Wahlberg, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake. Their holy grail, however, came in 2002 with 8 Mile, the truest portrait of Wegro life to hit the screen to date. This semi-autobiography of rapper Eminem shed an uncompromising light on how difficult it is for Wegroes to make it in a society where African-Americans hold so much institutionalized power. Oscar buzz surrounded Eminem's performance, but in the end, the only trophy he received was for best song; sadly reinforcing the stereotype that all Wegroes know how to do is dance and rap.

Wegroes continue to fight such stereotypes, in particular that of the buffoonish wannabe epitomized by Jamie Kennedy in Malibu's Most Wanted, Jack Black in I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, and Seth Green in Can't Hardly Wait. At times, organized boycotts have flexed the increasing power of the Wegro dollar, forcing, for example, the cancellation of Fox Television's Married With Children in the wake of David Faustino's Grandmaster B character. And Rodney Dangerfield's career was never the same after the uncut version of 1983's "Rappin' Rodney" music video surfaced, containing numerous mentions of the "W" word and condescending, hateful lyrics like "Zippity do da, zippity-ay. / I wonder what race I will be today."

Such usage of wigger by non-Wegroes brings to light the nuanced meaning of the word, which varies depending on the context and on who is speaking. Amongst Wegroes, it can be a term of endearment. It's even been transformed into a defiant stand against racial subjection. They throw it back in their oppressors' faces, adding positive meaning to the word. "To declare oneself a wigga," actor Brian Austin Green has stated, "is to declare to the disapproving mainstream, 'You can't fire me; I quit. And I'm telling my dad, who will so sue your ass.'"

If a black person or a non-Wegro white uses wigger, however, it carries an altogether different connotation, full of vitriol and merciless mockery. Some states even allow the use of wigger as legitimate provocation for violent retaliation. A pioneering case for this "fighting words" doctrine came in 2001's McGillicutty v. Van Lichtenstein. According to court records, the plaintiff allegedly labeled the defendant a wigger after the defendant proclaimed the film The Fast and the Furious to be "all that", prompting the defendant to stab the plaintiff between the third and fourth cervical vertebrae. Although the defendant was found guilty, his sentence was reduced because the plaintiff was found to have been intentionally provocative, "igniting the fuse of tens of years of racial oppression".

In Davenport, Iowa, African-American City Councilman John Ayers found himself at the center of controversy after discussing the seemingly benign topic of a colleague's affinity for lawn furniture. One innocent misheard comment later, and the "wicker lover" effectively ended Ayers's career in public service. Such is the power of the "W" word.

Such dangers aside, the use of wigger as a term of affection by white rappers like Eminem and Paul Wall has given the term a new currency and enhanced cachet such that many young blacks yearn to use the word like the whites whom they see as heroes and trendsetters. There are even reports of a new term arising, bwigger, or a black man trying to act like a white man trying to act like a black man.

Still, despite recent cultural trends, Wegroes continue the daily struggle that comes along with being a minority. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Gwen Stefani expounded on her trials: "I'm constantly forced to defend myself against accusations that all my success has come from somehow misappropriating African-American culture, but that's bull. I mean, I've misappropriated Jamaican culture, Indian culture, Japanese culture, and frankly Wegro culture itself."

Certainly, a great portion of Wegroes' struggles involves the "W" word. Wigger continues to be a forbidden word, the preeminent insult for a person of Wegroid origin. Will we as a society ever be rid of it? Doubtful; but with brave leaders like Stefani leading the way, the future appears to be "all that".

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