Keep this Word Out of your Mouth for a Brighter Tomorrow

It’s the word you think it is. The n-word. And yes, I’m referring to nonBlack folks here. Black folks are gonna deal with their their relationship to the word in whatever way they see fit and I have no say in that. Their use does not give you permission, implied or otherwise.

Also, since Black people don’t exactly run the world, remember that this is an act of your own volition. There’s no word police barring you from saying or typing it, only the unspoken contract of human decency.

If you do say or type it, you aren’t being brave or breaking any taboos. You’re just being an unempathetic jerk and signaling that to the rest of the world. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re a racist, just that you participate in racist stuff. If that doesn’t feel like much of a difference, welp.

About a year ago, my wife’s colleague called me a n*gger. I mean, she didn’t call ME a n*gger. She just said it twice while staring me down as we sat with my wife and another (nonWhite) colleague in a trendy Bushwick diner. She wasn’t directing the word towards me, she was just staring me down as she argued that White people should be allowed to say it when singing along or when they weren’t directly calling someone the word. It was a real life “are you biting your thumb” situation. I didn’t Capulet, I capitulated.

On the real, I couldn’t even deal with why she said it, as I was busy swimming in the last time I heard the word, and the time before that, and the time before that… I was 10 again, crouched in the back of the kitchen in Carlisle PA as Klan members marched past my front door. I was 11 and getting my teeth kicked in by some Doc Martens with red laces. I was 16 overhearing my (White) girlfriend’s mom freaking out when they met my parents and realized I was the lightskinned one.

I snapped back to the restaurant, snatched the artisanal water bottle from the table and smacked my wife’s colleague upside the head with it.

Ok, no. I didn’t hit anyone. Not even close. I did grab the bottle. I don’t remember too much after that, but I think I told her I wasn’t going to hit her. I may have been saying that to both of us. I wasn’t planning on hurting anyone, but my amygdala was going full Akbar. After a few minutes marked by a dearth of fully operational Death Stars, we all shuffled home. Oh yeah, my wife’s colleague was crashing in the living room. She had a big day tomorrow.

It wasn’t that hard to keep it together. I’ve been in that garbage chute before, and I’ve got a PHD in White women with a fetish for Emmet Till reenactments. Plus, I had just gotten back from a theater roundtable where I talked frankly about race with several White people who were able to provide their perspective without calling me out my name. I was in a good place. Wildin’ out would’ve been a sucka move, and Mommalekt ain’t raise no sucka.

Struck as I was by her audacity, I understand why she felt safe to say it. White folks been using the word for hundreds of years, finding it so integral to the English language that when they took a break sometime in the 80’s (ok, not really, but unless you were Nick Nolte or Dirty Harry, it became kindasorta frowned upon to say it in public), they developed an alternate term (n-word) lest they drop the concept of dehumanizing people entirely.

I also get why she felt she had a right to say it. In my experience, the more privileges a person has, the more apeshit they go when perceived restrictions are placed on them. Especially when another group gets to do it. It’s not fair to the fairskinned. It’s damn near reverse racism.

Besides, she’s heard Black people say it, and it’s in all the rap songs.

Is it that? Is she mad that a word meant to remind us how worthless we are is instead making a few people rich? Heads say Eddie Murphy made a career out of the word, despite Eddie’s own stand-up where he notes that his act is more than just curse words.

Why does that even matter? If you’ve decided that Black people are humans after all, and symbolized that change in thought by removing the title your ancestors gave us in between cracks of a whip, isn’t that the end of the story? Basing your usage on what Black folks do is concern trolling at best.

Is this like when your less attractive friend gets hotter and hooks up with people you didn’t want to hook up with anyway but you’re still jealous? Is this that old joke about not needing to be faster than the bear, just faster than somebody else in the party? Does it terrify people to know they have nobody automatically beneath them in the American Dreamcaste system?

My original rap name was Dat Hebrew Nga BK. I was secreting my identity brashly, issuing a challenge, and I thought it had an Ol’ Dirty Bastard kinda ring to it. At the time the majority of rap-purchasers were White, so I knew I’d be introducing myself with a word I’d flip out if I heard repeated. It wasn’t conscious, but I was certainly reveling in giving myself power by using a word that others have used to exert power over me.

I get feeling beaten down and wanting to connect with that power. I get the allure of the romanticized disenfranchised identity. If you can immerse yourself in a foreign world for 3:30 minutes, you can take a lil’ bit of that empowerment for yourself, but only if you can sing the whole song like somebody that belongs. Hell, that’s why I was doing it. I even used the word in my first song because that’s what rappers do. Knowing all that, below is my only use of the word in my music as a grownup.

“A punch in the liver after a bottle of liquor
That’s how fun it is to see White folks say ’n*gger’
Especially true when they ain’t talkin’ to you
An all of a sudden, look who’s the bully at school…”
(song here)

Yes if you’re following along she acted out a scene from my song. Oh, I also wrote a poem for a play where I said it about 30 times in an effort to show how the word has no positive value. It was a response to a White collaborator who liked being called the word.

My latest record involved researching internet comments, and now I think I read them as closely as I do the articles they follow. Here are some gems from when Papa John decided he needed to flex his n-word muscles:

Because I’m sensitive to fragility and have cookies for everyone, I wanna #notallwhitepeople here. Plenty of folks of European descent respect humans on GP (general principle). On that tip, why does this urge (it seems like an urge, I’ve never heard a reasoned argument for the desire) only arise in some White people? Is it genetic memory? Genetic memory has been shown to be a thing in mice and men, so are the South Park described “N*gger Guys” just the descendants of unrelenting jerks?

Memories of trauma have been passed through generations of Black families, and trauma of a similar nature continues today. Doctors define these conditions as PTSS and PTSD (or Hood PTSD but plenty of folks don’t dig that name). Now that I type all this out, I think this is why my wife’s friend decided to crack that whip.

Our conversation was about how it’s never cool for a White person to say the word I’ve been typing about for the last hour. I believe it stemmed from the story about the Lyft driver ejecting his passengers for saying it while singing along to a song. She wasn’t down with the idea that there be any word she would be barred from saying.

During the workshop before the incident, I had the loveliest and realest conversations with all manner of people, so I had my facilitator hat on. I empathize with her desire to be free. I like having the freedom to be loud and wrong as much as anyone. I’m full of assumptions and personal definitions. That typed, if somebody let’s me know that I’m using language that hurts them, it ain’t a thang to remove it from my lexicon.

I tried to appeal to her sense of common decency by explaining that I, not my ancestors or anyone in my life or any book, had suffered trauma associated with the word. I mentioned PTSS & PTSD. You know how cats mix up the colloquial and the clinical when it comes to mental health? I mean like how somebody will say they have OCD when they just like things neat, or call stupid things retarded. It’s insensitive and I know plenty of folks who WON’T STAND FOR IT.

She thought I was faking. Ironically, she wanted to police my word usage. It’s pretty well documented that White people think Black people feel less pain. PTSD is for soldiers and soldiers are American AF which makes them White. Even worse, while she knows discrimination is real and people of color have been hurt by both systems and individuals, those concepts live in abstract, usually in the past.

When she was faced with an actual person who embodied real trauma, she was forced to deal with that truth in a manner that made her uncomfortable. Lashing out tends to be the primary response when the privileged feel uncomfortable.

My family didn’t really use it, so I rarely heard the n-word in my presence until a rock was about to hit me in the head. I’m not even saying (typing) that White people CAN’T use it. I don’t have that kinda power. It’s just that if they do, they’re letting me know how little I mean to them. I don’t even want to go into the long division of deciding if they’re racists. That’s not my job or even my concern. I got my own prejudices to sort through. I might not even be right. I’m not your n*gger, and I’m not your Morgan Freeman either.