The Casual N-Word

A personal story… I was asked to write or post something personal. I finished this one reluctantly, as although I’m sharing my life, there will be people who misinterpret or ‘add’ meaning not present in the words I’ve put on paper. I wrote most of this extemporaneously, so treat it like a conversation.

First, let me remind you that I can laugh at the most horrendous things. I can be as macabre as anyone walking the face of the earth can. I can ignore accidental slights and laugh – mostly because I’m as guilty as the next person. Laughter or levity about any subject comes easily to me.

I believe in the power of words, even though I use them like a blind lumberjack holding an ax. Many words can be used in a manner that strips them of their weaponized usage, especially in private contexts, wherein no group or person is being targeted in anger, blame, or belittlement. (Trump gave us the ability to say a lot more of these words in public, it seems.)

In my writing, I’ve talked often about growing up in the South, around those who used the N-Word like verbal placeholders; or worse, as bullets. I heard the N-Word so often from my parents that I began to wonder if it wasn’t a specific, lazy, much-hated person they shared in their life, sort of like an elusive or invisible neighbor always just out of sight. Friends and family used it in ways that displayed their bigotry and prejudice. They defended their usage in all the familiar ways – and if questioned, lashed out in anger that only intensified their bigotry. Some used to the Bible to justify their hate while others blamed it on “the truth,” or “it’s always been that way.”

Bear in mind that I’m not talking about saying the N-Word in a benign context. I’m not defending its usage in that way, just drawing a poor distinction. For me, saying the N-Word when you are expressing hatred, anger, or irrational derision toward someone of another color is the problem. I heard it used frequently as a benign adjective or noun. In those contexts, the word was an indication of upbringing, education, and understanding – or lack thereof. Using that way was stupid, but not motivated by racism – just ignorance.

I’m also not talking about racist actions – just language and attitudes.

When I was very young, I used racist language. I was stupid, ignorant and a captive in a family that unilaterally despised most of what I find valuable in life. I learned and moved on.

Through the years, most people have learned to stop using the N-Word, at least in public, whether they are motivated by true insight into why it is a problem, or whether they don’t want to pay the social price for its usage. As everyone has observed, the word is declining in usage as the generations pass. It’s easier to overlook from those from older generations. It might not be fair, but I love a couple of people deeply who will never overcome the word in their lifetimes. Likewise, I hold some of the people in my life more accountable, as they should know better due to education, profession, and age.

As we’ve seen, “thug” or other thinly disguised code words are on the rise, as it allows those harboring prejudices to vent them openly and claim innocence. It is possible to use “thug” properly, without prejudice, but if you are using it in a certain context, it is questionable – and you probably know it. The more angrily you insist otherwise leads most people to assume you’re concealing deeper prejudices. Using questionable language gives people the ability to attack your motives. There are better words at our disposal.

As for the other part of my story, no one will know to whom I’m referring in this post. No one. (So, if by miracle you are that person, don’t reveal yourself. It’s not my brother or sister, by the way…) Nevertheless, I know a person from the same South that birthed me. I’ve known him all my life. He’s educated and has a position that should indicate that he doesn’t use harsh stereotypical language or words with malice. That indication is wrong.

Recently, I talked to him.  I predicted I would hear the N-Word several times. It’s difficult to count efficiently when the other person is doing a serious impression of Archie Bunker. It takes a lot of work to say the N-Word  repeatedly.

My acquaintance would be self-righteously furious if he knew that I pity him for his inability to grow up. And no matter how much I give him the benefit of the doubt, I still wonder how much racism creeps into his life, the last place you would want racism traveling to. He’s blind to it on a personal level so it is logical to assume it is a moving infection.

Granted, his problem isn’t a “thinking  thing.” He is so blind to his prejudice that he will never voluntarily come to understand that he’s a big part of the problem. You can’t convince him of any of the greater social or economic issues at play, or of cognitive dissonance, or any of the other issues at play in his case.  No matter how elegantly I could present the issues to him, his brain would literally be unable to accept a new dialog.

Like so many other people with questionable worldviews, he also uses the trite, “Everyone is racist” argument as if it’s written on granite in the Book of Truth. He does so in part because it is one of the most recited expressions among those who need to justify it.

Minorities don’t have more rights than the majority but they do have one thing others don’t: the right to point out that once you have eaten at the table of the lesser long enough, it’s hard to overcome the expectation that others see you as sitting at the table voluntarily. When white people use racial slurs, they are doing it from the position of historical fear, no matter how feebly they try to argue otherwise. Their usage is worse than that exhibited by those who are angry at being mistreated. This argument is one so many bigots dance around, avoid, or scream about.

When you’ve got everyone outnumbered, you’re the bully.

If you think you can be racist because a minority can, there’s no amount of conversation that will change your mind. “You can’t reason someone out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into.” Calling everyone else a racist is a poor argument on several fronts, but I’m not going to note them at this point.

As I think about my conversation overstuffed with the N-Word, I wonder how openly many people are going to proudly display their prejudice.

And scream with spittle-filled lips that they themselves aren’t prejudiced.

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