UPDATE: This was originally published Dec. 10th, 2014. Since then I've been called a nigger multiple times, most recently, last weekend by an EXTREMELY upset asian-americas "soccer mom." Days without being called a nigger: 7
The first time someone called me a nigger it was on a playground in a place called Sharon, Massachusetts. I was a small child.
My brother and I were no more than five and seven, respectively, left to our own devices in that sort of safe social space that simply doesn’t exist anymore. We were in that town, visiting friends of my father’s and kicked out to play in the neighborhood where we met our new friend, a girl our age, called Bitsy.
Memory is fuzzy so let us just say that kids are mostly open with other kids and, upon discovering her there, already swinging on the swings, the three of us folded together in that way adult no longer can. We played and chatted and dug holes and cracked sticks for what my memory says is a long time but, honestly, couldn’t have been more than an hour or two, at most.
We had fun. It’s important to note that because of what comes at the end. We laughed and whispered and swung and spun and had the fun we were supposed to and then it was time for Bitsy to go home for food.
We invited her back with us to our father’s friends’ house for tuna fish sandwiches but she begged off, saying her mom was making her lunch and she’d better go. As kids will do, we interpreted this as only a hiccup in our afternoon and offered the only obvious solution: we would go with her to her house and eat her mother’s lunch with her. After that, more play.
“Can’t,” says little Bitsy. “Mommy doesn’t want me playing with niggers.”
And then she skipped off home.
Now, in the movie version of this, this is a crisis event, spurring all sorts of tears and righteous anger and, just possibly, a heartfelt moment at the Lincoln Memorial with a crowd of Freedom Riders looking on. Music swells.
But this isn’t the movies and, at that point in my life, I’d never heard that word before. Without the proper context, the hit can’t and didn’t land. Bitsy is missing out on some awesome sandwiches, was pretty much my thought at the time.
I may have asked my Dad about it later. He may have explained it. I can’t recall. Fuzzy, remember? I told you about memory.
After that I got called nigger a lot, off and on, mostly by other Black people. For them there was another context, one I also didn’t know but, at that time, I gathered nigger, from them, amounted to being called “man” or “dude.” It never felt exactly right in my mouth, not because of any ethnic slur component but because my family stresses the proper use of English whenever and wherever possible with the admonition that it’s pretty much always possible. Still, I’m sure I said it frequently though not a lot.
I think the first time I had a real context and understanding of the word was when I read Huckleberry Finn.* I was eight, maybe. Nine. After that reading and some discussion with parents, I had some real confusion about why black people were calling each other that when whites would get a smack if they did it.
I understood the smack part but the whole, “That’s our word now” thesis seemed a bit wobbly to me. A word can have many meanings but I was fairly certain Jewish people weren’t greeting each other with a ubiquitous “What up, kike?” Somebody on our side, I decided, was getting something wrong.
I stopped saying nigger for several decades and, even now, I mostly only use it in my fiction when I’m trying to be idiomatically authentic. Sometimes, just to blend in a particular crowd I’ll switch back to a version of “urban patois” that includes the word but those times are fewer and fewer these days.** I’m not as big a fan of blending in as I used to be.
I grew up in the South and the North and the West and the word did crop up more than a few times over the next decades, often shouted happily from cars packed with young white men as they sped by. One time it was accompanied by a hurled McDonald’s soda. Missed.
Depending on the day, these events were either considered humorous (exhibiting as they did, the utter powerlessness of the men using it as well as their cowardice in choice of venue and target) or frustrating (because, when you want to smack someone who is already blocks away, it’s, well, that.).
Generally the hit only landed when I was already feeling low about something unconnected and was just the cherry on top of a bad day. It certainly never sent me into a frenzy of anger or a pit of despair.
One time, in high school, while waiting for a bus home, I was called a porch monkey by some lovely college-aged boys in the obligatory pick-up truck. I threw a brick at them in response.
One version of this story has the brick hitting and cracking their back window. I told it that way because I was young and it made me look better, I thought. In fact, the brick missed the window but that didn’t stop those young men from chasing me around Georgetown in their pickup for the next eternity of minutes.
Lucky escape for me, is how I interpreted that one. I don’t think I ever mentioned it to either of my parents. Just one of those things that happens when you’re sitting on a bus stop, singing James Taylor songs to yourself and you’re a black teenager.
At the age of ten, I even had the dubious distinction of being American but having been called a fucking little kaffir by actual Afrikaaners in actual Africa and burned with a cigarette. I also saved the life of at least one Boer who made the very serious mistake of calling my father “Boy” in front of his kids. (Long story. That guy was luckier than he’ll ever know.)
Things have got more subtle as I’ve aged, more differentiated. In personal life, for the most part, nigger began only to be said by other Black people, at least, to my face. The implication of the word only grew, however, and, with it, a more permanent sense of impending violence and message of social restriction.
Cops began to follow me about when I was in neighborhoods they deemed me to be intruding upon, even when it was my own neighborhood. In high school I was, on several occasions, confronted by multiple “swarms” of police, guns drawn, while simply walking from the bus stop to my home because, I suppose, Living on Capitol Hill while Black was a crime.
I was harassed by L.A. cops for being a passenger in a car driven by a pretty white girl. She got chatted up while I was cuffed and made to sit on a sidewalk. I suppose, had she been my girlfriend, instead of just a friend, this would have been even more humiliating. As it was, I was aware of the designed intent and duly impotently outraged.
L.A. Cops repeatedly stopped me as I exited a store or restaurant to ask me what business I’d had there. Even with the take-out still in my hands.
L.A. cops threw soda bottles and cans at me and my equally Black friends on more than one occasion both in groups and when alone. Message received, fellas. Got it.
The second week I joined the cast of a popular television series I was confronted in the parking lot of my apartment complex by, this time, a couple of armed cops, guns drawn, telling me to “freeze” where I was because I was a suspect in some minutes-ago robbery. This was in Georgia, not California.
Never mind that I was in my pajamas. Never mind that I was carrying an armload of linens from the complex’s nearby (and visible) laundry room to the obviously open door of my nearby apartment. Never mind that I heard, over the police radio, the description of the actual suspect who only had gender in common with me. Age, ethnicity, body type, dress, all these were ignored on sighting me.
I should note for those people who think only “criminals” get this treatment because they are either up to no good or about to be and, therefore, the police are entitled to treat them as if they are already convicted felons, on sight, rather than assuming innocence, that I am one of the supposed “good ones.”
Pay my taxes. Barely ever jay walk, speed or double park. Highly skilled. Highly paid. Highly intelligent. I don’t even drink or do the softly illicit chemicals that seem to be socially ubiquitous after middle school. Never have. There is never, not ever, a single moment of my life where any police officer should look at me and assume “criminal.” Never. Nor has there ever been, not in 40+ years of life.
I’ve probably been called a nigger by someone a minimum of once a month for my entire life. That, I don’t need to tell you, is a lot of niggers. Should it bug me less that most of the niggers are from Black people? It doesn’t.
Chuck D called me a nigger. Tupac did too. Biggie Smalls. All of NWA. Yes, they were talking about all Black people, not me, specifically, but all Black people includes me, so…
Their mostly talentless successors refer to all of us and to themselves as niggers pretty much constantly. I think they mean it, too, about themselves and us. Sad.
I forgive them, mostly, because they are mostly stupid, under-educated or both. I just don’t buy their music. Thanks to their unceasing efforts their mostly white audiences are still testing the word, seeing if Nigga is okay because we’re all here together, dancing, aren’t we?
No. It’s still nigger. Nigga is nigger, so, no. Subbing in Ninja is just condescending. In this context it is nigger too, as is the infantilizing “N Word.” So, again, no and no.
The word is nigger. Not Voldemort, not N-----. Nigger.
I think the last time someone called me a nigger, to my face, in the classical, insulting way, was a year ago:
I was in a parking garage in Culver City, meeting up with my wife and some in-laws for lunch. I stepped out of the elevator to find a young couple- him, white hipster type, her, pretty Latina, also of the vaguely hip persuasion- waiting.
I got off, walked past them and, before I got five steps, I heard her say, “Damn, that’s why I hate niggers. Always making people late for things.”
It stopped me. I admit it. If I have any vestigial sexism it comes to the fore when women display the sorts of negative behaviors I normally attach to males. We’re supposed to be the inherently more brutish sex, by comparison, on a sort of primate level– at least that’s the rumor.
I’m always surprised to find female racists though, of course, I shouldn’t be. Bitsy’s Mom was my first, after all. And they made up 50% of the Antebellum South and subsequent beneficiaries of Jim Crow.
Plus, this girl was a Latina, a fellow Person of Color****.
A Hasidic man called me a nigger on the street a couple years back. I think he wanted me to move out of his way, which struck me as odd because I wasn’t in it. It was so out-of-nowhere that I didn’t even have time to be angry. I was just sort of stunned and he hustled off somewhere before I could respond in any case. Sort of a drive-by niggering, without the car.
That’s another thing that often pulls me up short that shouldn’t. Racism from members of groups who have felt and are feeling the sting of racism themselves. What the hell, right? Odd.
Only, really, not. A lot of people need to have somebody lower than themselves to feel good, I suppose. We see this paradigm played out in every Starbucks customer line and at every crowded post office. We all feel just a little bit better about life when we’re the second-to-last person in line instead of dead last. *****
Anyway, for whatever reason, I didn’t think Little Miss Shit Talk should get away with her jab.
So I silently and quickly moved back to the elevator, stopping the door just as it was about to close. You’ve all seen the scene in a movie. It was exactly that. The young man looked both mortified and appropriately scared. The girl smirked.
“You two got something you want to say to me?” I said, in my frosty voice. I also loomed over them in that intentionally menacing way. Yes. On purpose. I loom quite well when I'm of a mind.
The young man shook his head. “No. Sorry. No.” He sort of croaked it out. The girl continued to smirk which told me that this was a two-birds-for-one moment for her. She got to insult the nigger and humiliate her “cowardly” boyfriend for not stepping up, all with one instigating sentence. Nice work.
Her parents must be so proud.
I gave them the frosty look, took the appropriate pause to let everyone know what could have happened in that little elevator had I been a bit younger and bit angrier. Then I let them go. I had a lunch to get to.
I heard him ask her what the hell she’d done that for as the elevator went up. If she responded I didn’t hear it. I like to think that was the end of them as a couple. Probably not but, it pleases me to think it.
Since then, the only niggers I’ve had tossed at me have been on the internet (which is just adorable) and in the coded language of right wing pundits and “news” commentators.
Same shit, different day, in other words. The status remains quo.
Why am I writing all this? To be absolutely frank, I’m not exactly sure.
It may be because a slew of high-profile murders of Black people by cops has recently garnered the national attention, inspiring the sort of incisive, penetrating debate we’ve come to love from Twitter and the pundits on our “news” sources of choice.
It may be because I feel our society has so failed the next couple of generations that so many of them are both shocked and outraged by these events but not so shocked or outraged that they actually participate in the society beyond being consumers.
Our system isn’t actually broken, you know. It just needs full participation to make it work. Which is why so many people have a vested interest in preventing so many of us from participating. I would be considerably more energized by the outrage if the outraged showed up to the polls, each and every time, to vote for council people and alder people and senators and mayors and bond measures and comptrollers.
I’d be more inclined to march if the whole thing didn’t smack of a show.
I’m sorry. That probably offends a lot of people who’ve gone out in the cold and stood fast against the varying levels of police response to their presence over the last few months.
For what it's worth I’m actually sorry (not the fake, “I’m sorry you feel that way” kind of sorry) but I think I’ve been here before too many times. Any time I can accurately predict 100% of what will come out of peoples’ mouths on both sides of an issue, I get sleepy about any actual change happening.
Remember Occupy? Yeah, me neither, and that was about something far more important to modern Americans than the deaths of a few black people at the hands of those whose job was to protect them as citizens. That was about money.
When it comes to racism, all the really heavy lifting has been done. The mass lynching, the cops and FBI targeting people, sometimes killing them in their homes, the rapes, the bombings, all that was suffered by people who were getting their racism from their fellow citizens and their government wholesale. No one under 60 really has a clue what that was like. Not even me. Whatever we’ve got now, however bad it may be, they had it miles worse.
And they did a lot more than march about it. They worked the system as well, because they were inside it, participating, fighting and dying for full participation.
If you don’t know this, it’s not entirely your fault. As I said, if you’re young enough, our educational system has likely failed you by feeding you simplistic or specious cartoons about everything from the origins of our species to the actual duties of our President.
Apparently zero attention is paid to drilling into you what you owe as a citizen and how paying what you owe actually makes the nation work. So you can’t be faulted for making poor-but-dramatic choices when it comes to redress.
Or I could be writing this because I’m a verbose bastard who has had quite enough of the faux raised eyebrows and the endless discussion of forming committees to “look into these problems.”
We know our nation. All of us do. None of us is surprised that these things have happened and are happening and will happen tomorrow and the next day and the next. Anyone who says they’re surprised is a liar.
The issue here isn’t that these things are happening, it’s what we, as a nation, decide is the value of these events. What do they say about us, as a group, and are we all right with that? It’s very possible that “we” are all right with it.
It may be that "we" are perfectly fine with the cops being able to murder whoever, wherever, claiming, at the time, they feared for their lives, because the people getting murdered are predominantly brown-skinned. That may be who “we” are.
Or it may be that we finally grapple with that image and gut any future possibility of being tarred that way, as a group, by making the social and societal changes necessary. I don’t know. Nobody knows.
Not to get too Clinton-esque about it but It really does depend on who you’re talking about when you say “we.” I only know what I mean when I say it.
But, since we’re pretending together that all this is a shock and, oh heavens, what can be done to solve it, let’s start with this one, simple brass tack.
It means one thing and one thing only. It means “slave-descendant Americans who look basically African and are thus not quite human beings.” It means this regardless of who is saying it. It means this regardless of the color of the person saying it or their gender or their class. It means this regardless of context– whether being spat with venom at a Klan rally or in quiet academic discussion in one of our Ivory Towers. It means this whether you change the er to an a, whether you make it a jumble like N Word or sub in a homophone like Ninja.
And all of you know it. It is literally***** impossible for you not to know it. This word and this meaning pervade our society at every level, in every venue, like the rot in a beautiful, succulent fruit. In fact it is so pervasive that nobody really needs to say it anymore at all.
Not Black people, who really should have put it down a long time ago. Not white people, many of whom seem to think they’re now being excluded from something by not being “allowed” to use it. Not the hipsters of either gender who think it’s all cool and misspelling it takes off the sting. Not the rich, cloistered bastards who think their money inures them to the ugly bits of a society they seem to think of a their personal Abercrombie & Fitch. Not even the straight-up, in-your-face racists who wish we’d all drown as we try to swim “back to Africa.”
None of us need to say it.
In our society the nigger is always implied.
*By the way, Angry Black People. That book is, pound for pound, the best anti-racism tract ever written and, if you’re too stupid to understand that, do the rest of us the courtesy of shutting the hell up. That way we can assume you’re just shy instead of illiterate.
** Look up code-switching if you don’t already know what that is.
*** I don’t count Facebook and Twitter. The internet makes cowards brave and the epithets fly fast and free there. They’re meaningless.
****I don’t do PoC in my head. I use it verbally because it’s necessary. Sort of another code-switch. I just use “person” in my head.
***** This, by the way, is why we have groups like the KKK and the Aryan Whatever. Second-to-last is better than last. Rich people, after all, don’t need these clubs. They have Wall Street and the Velvet Ropes.
******This is the actual definition of literally, rather than the modern update, which now means ‘figuratively’ because too many illiterates kept misusing the word.