Thursday, June 09, 2005

Worse than the f-word...

In my current circumstances, I am surrounded by lots of 20-somethings - folks whom have never seen a kitchen plastic bag without a zip-loc seal, who've never known TVs without remote controls, etc. So our conversations can get a little disjointed.

And there are things that I have real, real difficulty dealing with - things that just don't seem to faze the younger folks all that much. We started talking about this over lunch today, after I came back from the grocery store near my work site (which most folks would say was "in the 'hood"). Almost as soon as I got out of the car at the store, I started to hear it. I heard it yelled across the parking lot; I heard it blasting out of a car stereo. In fact, I probably heard it 15 or 20 times just walking to the store, and it really annoyed me - worse than "kike," "wop," queer," "fag," or any other epithet. The more I listened, the angrier I got. What one word has the power to do this, you ask? This one:

Nigger. I hate that word.

Now bear with me. Realize, first of all, that I am a child of the late 50's. I was seven in 1964 as the Civil Rights Act was passed. I was 11 during that horrible summer when both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. And I was the grandson of Polish immigrants who were tired of hearing "Polack" bandied about.

But more than that, I was the son of two white Silent-Generation types who were anything but silent when it came to respecting people of all walks in life. I never got my mouth washed out with an authentic bar of Ivory Soap - but the closest I ever came was when I made the mistake of asking what a "nigger" was, and why was it such a big deal to say. In strident tones, my mom told me (in essence) that it was a word used by idiots to refer to people who were much better than the idiots were. The explanation went on for much longer than that, but that was the jist of it. It became clear to me that when it came to respecting one's fellow human beings, my folks expected me to err on the side of respect and care.

I guess that also explains why it irks me so much - because I don't ever want to think of anyone as idiots, but that's just what I think when I hear one black person referring to another one by the n-word.

God knows, it's hard enough to get bigoted white people to not use it - but when the world hear African-Americans tossing that word about casually, it becomes hard to argue against using it (even though I know damn well what's right and wrong about speaking that word).

I've heard the arguments - it's a term of casual slang, like gay people referring to each other as "fags" (something that grates on me, as well); that it's all a just-in-fun thing between blacks; and so on. Sorry, folks; I'm not buyin' any of it - never have, never will, no matter how trendy it gets.

I just can't get my mind to bend that way. I know it's largely about "accepting the things I can't change," but I know too many black people who fought way too long and hard for acceptance and respect to ever condone the use of that word - ever. For me, if you're using the word, you qualify for the label - in all its original meaning - no matter what color your skin is.

Just say no. Please.


so i go said...

i'm with you, brother. amen.

Michael Dodd said...

An interesting problem. I grew up in the segregated south and my father still uses the n-word sometimes, mainly to get a reaction from me or my brother, I think. I also find it jarring, no matter who uses it, just as I find the word "Boy!" said with a certain inflection positively nasty.

As a gay man, I will refer to myself as a queer or a faggot, and I do it intentionally at times. I can see that other gay men might not want to be called that even by their friends. For example, I always am irritated when out with a certain group of my friends and one of the guys refers to us as girls. This may be rooted in some sort of misogyny (hoping not) or it may just tap into a stereotype of effeminate men that I have trouble identifying with. Also, his tone makes it sound like an insult is intended, as though he is somehow the butch one in the crowd. Intentional of not, he says it like an overweight junior high coach picking on the skinny kid who is being pelted by the dodgeballs. So what the hell is that all about? Anyway, what it does is peel back another layer of my own bias, I guess, and it is my side of the road for which I am responsible.

Not that there's anything wrong with that!

Bar L. said...

I'm with you also. You and I are about the same age. When I was about 7 I lived in an all-white neighborhood. A black family (actually called "colored" back in the 60's) bought the house down the street from us. I will NEVER forget the following event and the effect it had on me.

One evening a neighbor came to the door and spoke with my father. I overheard their conversation and don't recall the exact words but basically he was asking my dad to sign a petition to keep "those people" from moving in and "ruining the neighborhood". He said if we let them in then the whole neighborhood would go downhill and be taken over by "the coloreds".

Well, my father told that guy to take his petition and go to hell. I had NEVER heard my dad curse before. I could tell by the color of his face that he was restraining himself from saying more, or maybe even punching the guy out. I was immensely proud of my father.

Turns out, the family had a girl may age. Debbie Johnson. She became my best friend. We even became "blood sisters" by poking our fingertips with blood and letting it mingle (this sounds weird in today's world, but back then it was a typical way for two kids to show they were committed friends).

Unfortunately Debbie's family moved a few years later. I loved her parents and her two sisters and will never forget them.

Sorry to go on and on...Maybe I should post this on my own blog instead! Thanks for bringing back the memory!