Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Other N Word

Did you know that racism is alive and thriving in this country? Yep, it is. (Shocking, I know.) I get little first-hand tastes every now and then. And how does it taste? Bitter.

I always think I am going to be prepared for it when it comes. I have thought through retorts and responses a thousand times, playing out the potential offending scenarios in my head. But then when it actually happens? Crickets in my brain. Chirp Chirp. I go blank. Well, not completely blank but the intelligent and thoughtful lines that I had in que seem to go out to lunch at that moment in time. Maybe I need to add more fish oil to my diet. Good for the brain.

The latest racist expletive I heard is a doozy. A DOOZY. I don't think I have heard this word since I watched Roots in the 7th grade. It's not the N Word. No, it's the OTHER N Word, the one that Wikipedia claims became an ethnic slur in the 1960's.

Are you ready for it?


I'll give you a minute to process....or to gag....

Okay, so here's the deal. I had someone use this word in a sentence to me just yesterday, over the phone. She is lucky it was over the phone because if it had been in person I'm not sure what I would have done. I do not know this person, and hopefully never will. This person was calling the church where I work. She is not a member but was wondering about our worship services. She was asking me if I knew a certain person at our church, and this is how it was said (exact words): "Does that dark woman still play the piano there? You know, the negro?" Yes, this is a true story. So I say (after my mind goes blank from the shock): "You probably mean Marti, and yes she is African-American." Racist woman on the other end says: "Yeah...whatever."

Now, I wish I would not have left it at that. I SO wish I would have said more. But looking back I think I might have done all I could in that situation. I should have said something like, "That word is offensive and I suggest you use something more appropriate like African-American." But would that have been any more effective that what I really did say? I don't know. I don't think anything would have gotten through her ignorant, Neanderthal skull. Sorry, anger gets us nowhere. I realize that. But I AM angry, damn it. Very angry. I am mad that this shit still exists. That people are allowed to walk around thinking and saying these things makes me sick to my stomach. I am offended on behalf of my son, on behalf of ALL AA people. It's not just about antiquated language, or ignorance, or not knowing any better. Those are all excuses for the fact that this LABEL is, plain and simple, not acceptable. Although this slur is really a derivative of the Latin word "niger", meaning "black", it's ties are to utterly painful things in the history of AA people in this country--namely slavery. This kind of language is so much more damaging that one might first think.

Speaking of damaging: Did you know that if you Google the word negro one of the suggested "related searches" that comes up, in fact the FIRST one that comes up, is "negro jokes"? That leaves me cold.

I won't expound on this too much because there are so many other people who have said it far better than I ever could. But, I do want to say that LANGUAGE MATTERS. Sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me. B.S.! Words can do deep and long-lasting harm. Words are what wars are fought over every day. Words are the ammunition of bigots and bullies.

And one word can feel like a punch in the gut. It only takes one.

Racism: Another ugly word. I don't like it and I will never accept it. I am so aware of the fact that I am a white woman raising a black son in this kind of world. It is my responsibility to him to never accept this as status quo. That is why I work with the Diversity Council of Rochester, that is why I talk about these things with family and friends, that is why I hope to write and speak more publicly about these topics at some point in my life. We are so freakin' proud of our multi-racial family. We think it is beautiful. I hope that someday we will live in a world where everyone thinks the same.


  1. Wow,
    this is deeper than what I thought. That was quite rude and calling a church, saying such things as that. However, in her mind, she was probably not offending anyone and she probably felt that it was appropriate. Highly socially inappropriate and I wonder would she use this word in the presence of an African American.

  2. Thank you for writing this. I honestly had no idea that the term "negro" was offensive. But my background may account for this. In high school, (graduated 1982; I know, I'm old. . . ) we only had one African-American family, and they were all honor-roll and class presidents. And my family didn't have a TV during those years, by choice. So the only example of current black culture were those kids. I also now live in Idaho, where the black population happens to be very small.
    And so I guess the point I am trying to make is that the person that called you at the church may have not realized that was an offensive term, just as I had no idea.


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