“But it’s not offensive!” — the N word in Northern and Central Europe

I’ve always believed that age does not matter in friendship, if you click, you click. In some areas my twenty-five- year-old friend and I have more in common than anyone else on the planet. In other areas my fifty-year-old friend and I could be the same person. But there is a trend I noticed, especially among my friends in their forties and fifties who grew up in Northern and Central Europe, the liberal and unabashed use of the N word. My initial reaction normally is to walk away, because I really can’t stand racists, but on a few occasions these statements were made by those I really do consider close — or at the very least — good friends, and something kept me in place. Not where I take it, or allow it, but where I try and have a conversation with them, explain why I really can’t stand that word, even though I’m not black. I’m not one of those liberal, PC, SJW, hipster activists. It’s just that my godfather was black, and watching him leave the room every time a cop beat up a black man on TV, leaves its mark on a little kid, even if he himself never mentioned it.

Even as a kid in the Midwesr, with racial tensions sometimes taking on intense levels among kids, it never even occurred to me to use that word. And I’d use any bad word I thought I could get away with. Because I loved to eavesdrop whenever I could, my repertoire was pretty good, in several languages. That might actually be just it, none of my elders used the word, not even in secret, whether they spoke English as their first language or not. And that was precisely the excuse those friends gave, “we all always used that word. It’s natural.”

Ok, let’s play devil’s advocate for a minute. Let’s say you did grow up using it, that still gives you no excuse. I remember seeing the word too, everywhere around me, in chocolates, in stories (for children), in songs (again, for children). It still never occurred to me to transfer it to a person. I’m not saying this to show how virtuous I am, just that it can be done.

I honestly believe that while some people really don’t care, others just can’t summon the empathy — or imagination — as to how this might affect others, not just blacks in general, but also those who just really can’t stand the word. They didn’t grow up in the U.S., a lot of them didn’t see anyone darker than themselves until they were either adults or well into their teens. Again, not an excuse, just context. I myself didn’t realize Gypsy was essentially an insult, until I asked a Roma friend, who pointed out that “roma” means “person.” I’m still waiting for my elderly relatives to catch on to that one, but my tactic here is that if I use it often enough, they will follow suit. We’ll see how that little experiment works out. Operation N-Wordsucces hasn’t exactly met with outstanding success so far, but I at least got one friend to switch it to “blacks” when he’s on one of his rants. We’ll tackle the rants at a later point, for now what seems to work is to point out that it’s not so much the use of the word itself that bothers me, but it just shows a level of ignorance I’m sure they don’t want to project.

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