The N-word

If I may ask Nasty Nas to provide a prelude

This world press site is meant to be a place where I can post reflections on life, especially my own. Of late, I have been preoccupied with my recent flood of struggles, and I think that is – and will continue to be – reflected. Today, or at least this post, will be an example of what I hope my reflections can be in the future. Rather than tumble my struggles around in my head, I spent this morning’s walk with Nora (my dog) thinking about the N-word. I’m not sure why. The following is what I think about it.

My perspective of race, and the N-word is that of a white man’s. Though I grew up in Brooklyn, before I went to high school, most of my formative experiences with members of the African diaspora was one where because of my class, they were in service positions. I was certainly taught that all people are equal, and that I should never be prejudice and that racism is terrible. Still, growing up in a racist society, without active intervention, I have soaked up many terrible subconscious opinions and beliefs I struggle to correct. Thankfully, friends, lovers and educators, as well as writers who do not know me and do not write for me, have given me a wealth of opportunities and resources to combat my daemons of oppression.

I do not remember the first time I learned about the N-word. I remember being young and feeling that the word caused me anxiety. I was told to never say it, that it was as bad a word as you can say, and that it hurts black people and that I would be punished if I said it. Sometimes, when I was around a group black people, I would get really nervous that I would blurt it out, and then bad things would happen. This was never more acute than when I was in Grenada when I was ten. I could count on one hand the number of white people I saw in my time on that island, and I’m sure the sight of a little white kid walking around with a local black family was a curious one. I was extremely scared there initially because I underwent a tremendous amount of culture shock, but in the end, I loved the place, but the fear that I would drop the N-bomb never subsided. I didn’t want to hurt or offend my hosts, but I also had a great fear the repercussions.

Today I think that the N-word is a terribly complicated and awful issue. I chose to not say it, I do not remember the last time I did. I have said it ‘clinically,’ because “n-word” is awkward and uncomfortable – that might be the point. For me it is an issue of respect. As a citizen of the United States I retain the right to say it, I can yell it if I want, but as a human, a compassionate humanist, I know that I should not say it. To do so would be to consciously harm, to needlessly inflict pain and be flagrantly dismissive of the history of slavery. I do not use racist/homophobic/etc terms because parties with histories of grievances have asked me not to. They have asked me to respect their feelings, their histories of pain and I chose to do that. No one is bad because they are gay, black, disabled or poor. Using these demographic facts to inflict pain is ignorant and dehumanizing. For me, to behave in such a way is inconsistent with the person I want to be.

I know that many people do not intend offense when they use the world like the N-word. White and privileged people believe that they can act however they want without causing harm, so its all good. In my mind, refraining from using triggering words is a small price to pay if it means that I wont inflame and resurrect hundreds of years of pain and injustice. At the end of the day, once you have triggered a painful response, that pain is real, regardless of your intent. Even if the person I am talking about has decided that they do not care if white people self-censor, I believe that I should be consistent in my behavior.

I really cannot say who should and should not be able to say the world or worlds like it, in terms of what is appropriate. I cannot say if anyone should be able to say it at all, or when. I do think that they word should not be criminalized, I think that we can use it as a cultural barometer of sensitivity and respect. If someone has the moral capacity to control themselves so that their neighbors and follow humans might live an easier life, a happier one without legacies of terror constantly brought up, then they might just be ok.

So that’s where I land on the thing, this morning.

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