The Race Files – (N) Bombs Over Black Man / Calling Out a Friend

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I don’t want them hip white people coming up to me calling me no nigger or telling me nigger jokes. I don’t like it! I’m just telling you, it’s uncomfortable to me.

Richard Pryor

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In early January, my band practiced for the first time since mid-December. There had been a few recent changes and some radio silence, so it felt good to play together again. We talked as well, catching up on holiday happenings and other life developments. A bandmember’s roommate came up in conversation – we’ll call him Absalom – particularly his struggles with mood and intoxicants. “He was saying the N-word in my ear you know, that one night at the bar,” I said.

This was true. The band had gone to a West Side punk bar some weeks prior and encountered Absalom at the establishment, unplanned. He was in truly bad shape, seemingly out on his feet with alcohol and medication. He tottered and leaned, and when he spoke, his thoughts were barely coherent. We formed a sort of casual protectorate around him, trying to head off true disaster. However, this meant we had to converse with him to be polite, which was an awkward proposition. How do you talk to a man receded, on autopilot, his system’s stewards frantically jotting a few dozen pieces of information out of the millions flying past? There was a lot of vague nodding and smiling.

At some point I ended up standing next to Absalom, and he saw fit to cup his mouth with a hand and speak little rap lines directly into my ear, each ending with “niggaaa.” This went on for too long, and I became extremely uncomfortable. I knew that he was not in control, and therefore I could not summon anger at this helpless fool. I became very upset about the situation instead. I left our loose huddle and headed for the bathroom. When I came back I made sure to stand away from Absalom.

I told the band this story at the early January practice. The guitarist – we’ll call her Gertrude – was truly disappointed. She said something like “Shit, I didn’t know my roommate was going around saying nigger.” At this I rolled my eyes and slumped. Gertrude’s blithe words brought up another, closely related issue, one that had been bothering me for a while: Each of my bandmates had at some point said the N-word in front of me, casually, not reading my reactions well enough to see that I did not like it. I had let it go, but perhaps unwisely. Now there was an element of hypocrisy at play, and a call to speak up.

I had a theory. Not that my bandmates are racist and treat dark-skinned people differently, but that on a subconscious level, dropping the N-bomb in front of a black man represents a certain thrill for them, and is an exhibit of a certain cool, mature worldliness they like to feel. They can say “nigger” and “nigga” (these are slightly different words) in front of me because we are all grown-ups, and they have a certain civilized distance from the word in its hurtful, troglodyte form. When they say the N-word, it is from the perspective of scholarly discussion, a sociological study of the way young white people consume rap music and other black culture, and how they relate to race in America. It is also a celebration sometimes, of the unequivocal brilliance of black entertainers and their clever use of the vernacular. For my bandmates, it is a happiness to have a black friend and bandmate that they are cool with, so cool in fact that they can release the N-bomb in front of him and, like smart adults, everyone is cool about it. In essence, saying the N-word is a post-racial activity for them, because they are so beyond the racist origins of the word that they couldn’t possibly pronounce it in a hateful way.

This is a cute idea, but frankly it’s not one that I share, and that they did not consult me on this usage bothered me. When they let the N-word fly, I would roll my eyes or frown or sigh, but I did not sound the alarm. I knew that they did not mean me any particular pain, but in their single-consciousness, they did not see the orchards of strange fruit the word conjured in my mind’s eye. Also, covertly, I had the feeling that there was ulterior motive, however slight or subliminal, and that they were getting a little ego boost and racking up points by being hip enough to break a taboo and get away with it.

I should have sounded the alarm. On a trip to Chicago prior to the practice, I voiced my displeasure, (making many of the same points I’m trying to make here) to a dear friend – we’ll call him Hammurabi – on a lovely, honest nighttime walk through Pilsen. In speaking about it, I realized how upset I was.

I used to say the N-word a lot. For better or worse, it is a cornerstone of the African American comedy and hip hop traditions. I didn’t have many black friends growing up, but when I did, we sort of bonded over the freedom to use the N-word, and delighted in how it was used in the parts of black culture we both enjoyed. We felt like insiders in some ways, closer spiritually to the Chris Rock albums and Jay-Z songs that so many of our classmates of all colors were enjoying. It was also a solidarity move – a tool to gulf the distance between my upbringing – middle class with one black parent who did not originate from America and therefore lacks those cultural imprints – and the people who looked like me.

But I gave up on trying to be “black” at some point in high school really, and just tried to be myself instead. My usage of the N-word dropped to almost nil. It just didn’t seem becoming anymore, especially once I started engineering school at Northwestern. Fast forwarding, I can be almost certain that I did not use the N-word in front of my bandmates, except perhaps for direct quotes from rap songs or Chappelle’s Show. So for them to start using it around me was their initiative, and as I ranted to Hammurabi, I realized that I resented this.

At the end of that early January practice, the bassist – we’ll call him Jethro – left for a snowboarding trip. Gertrude again expressed regret about Absalom’s choice of words. I decided it was time to initiate a confrontation – something I have been working on. “You know, you and Jethro have been saying the N-word in front of me a lot too,” I said, getting things rolling. “In fact you said it tonight.” I made many of the points I have made above, somewhat haltingly and angrily. Regardless, I said the things I felt I needed to say. I felt bad that I was only putting Gertrude in the spotlight when Jethro deserved his own share of my opprobrium. I batted away rationalizations and went at Gertrude though, not backing down. “Remove the straw from your own eye, before you try to remove the rafter from Absalom’s,” I may have said.

It felt good to put my feelings out there, and I don’t regret it. I’ve stood by so many times and reacted to the N-word and (the other) F-word with little more than grimaces and a lowered head. Sure I was calling out a friend, but it’s a start. Gertrude apologized and was genuinely contrite. I still need to call out Jethro.

If I have a conclusion, it’s that words have power, and there is a power struggle that still surrounds those words designed only for hurt and hatred. I am not of the belief that white people (especially young, educated, hip white people) can make their use of the N-word acceptable by means of cultural finesse. I think that’s an egotistical delusion that presumes racial wounds that are more healed than they really are.

Okay, we can all get together and recite rap songs we all like, but some of my most culturally acute (though certainly not “hip” in the blazer-wearing, detached sense) friends and former schoolmates from Ann Arbor and Evanston have found ingenious ways to self-censor and dance around actually speaking the loathsome word (“Jigga” worked in middle school. “My dude” is a good one, as are “Fella” and “Homey.” “My Man,” delivered as the quote from Training Day, delivered with the right inflection is hilarious). I’ve always appreciated this. I believe that it is the proper balance. After all, what use of the hard work of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements if I cannot say “Don’t say that word in front of me,” to white friends and acquaintances, and have an expectation that they will respect that request? How much better if they realize the hazards ahead of time, and find ways for us to relate with respect and consideration?

In that light, to invoke the word casually – sometimes with the sharp, painful “-er” still attached – is the height of laziness, a lack of consideration and an assumption of unearned spectatorship that rankles. As long as white privilege exists in society, there can be no meta-racial dialogue and N-word immunity. If my bandmates had asked me “Is it cool if we say nigga in front of you?” I would have answered no. The answer is still No, with a capital N.

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