So, let me tell y’all about the first time someone called me “Nigger.”
Yeah, I know. Bit of a sharp turn. But these days, we don’t have the time to ease into things.
I should clarify, though. This is about the first time someone called me that, to my face. I’d heard the word before, of course, but never directed towards me in its intended context. At least, never before where I was aware of it.
I was 11. I was in New Jersey. And, we were in the middle of a church youth group event.
At that age, I was a good Christian girl who did as she was told. I was also a bit of a hothead. Got bullied a few too many times, so if an argument or trading of insults came along, I wouldn’t back down. ever. Boys getting up in my face did not scare me. I had too much mouth and way too many boy cousins for that. And, when you reach that time as a kid where you’re in between childhood and adolescence, everything is on high alert.
One of the guys in my youth group, started bringing his school buddies to our church’s events. I detested him. He was a blond, bloated brat of a child, who only seemed to enjoy Group when he was pissing me off. He was the prototype for every Class A Jerk from every ’80’s high school movie.
But, I had to learn to get along with everyone. Because, after all, we’re All God’s children. I had other theories regarding his origin, but I digress.
We were having a spirited game in the basement of a local church, with another Youth Group. And once again, (we’ll call him CJ) had started in on me and I tried to ignore him, shout him down, whatever. I would not be dragged into a confrontation that day.
Until he stared and smiled in my face, and quietly said “Nigger.” Calmly. Effortlessly. Softly enough so that only I could hear him.
Well, between that and a lethal combination of hormones, hot-headedness and general disgust for “CJ”, I saw Red. Like, literally. To be honest, the next couple of minutes, I don’t remember seeing or doing anything. I just remember my 6’6″ pastor, prying me off this kid, and dragging me upstairs. It was humiliating and enraging, and I wanted to tear him limb from limb. He laughed it off. Probably because I had not yet learned about the vulnerability of testicles.
I realized that the whole point of that exchange was just to get me into trouble. He used “that word” to provoke me to act out. My pastor knew me as an honest kid, so it made it easier for him to believe that I was telling the truth. But, the damage had already been done.
After that, I realized it was a word that was going to follow me, everywhere. For the rest of my life. Whether or not I was what people expected was irrelevant. Whether or not people said it out loud made no difference. You could see it in their eyes. You could hear it in their condescending tones.
When some old biddy in helmet hair “complimented” me on my speech, I knew it was quantified.
“You speak so well.” – (you know, for being Black and all)
“You’re not like the others.” (I don’t have to watch myself around YOU)
“I don’t see color.” (that one’s just a lie, and we all know it)
“Smile! I can’t see you in the dark.” (never liked that one, but “it’s just a joke.”)
When you walk into a store and get “extra” attention.
When the authorities just HAVE to know where YOU’RE going.
When you just don’t kowtow enough for their satisfaction.
When everyone tells you, “if only you had… If you just hadn’t…” “You shouldn’t have…” “Don’t let it…” “Ignore it.. Address it… Don’t stand for it… You’re asking for it…” The responsibility is on you.
Being Black is walking on eggshells. Every encounter has the potential for danger, for blame, for death. All day, every day. You read about the NEXT deadly encounter that should not have happened, and in no time at all, the victim is dragged through the mud, on an unholy level. Every story about some poor man or woman, trying to walk away, or defending themselves, or exercising their rights, or giving UP their rights to comply. No matter what, the conversation devolves into how they set themselves up for destruction.
It is… exhausting.
It’s in everything. The clothes we buy. The news we headline. The tv shows we appear in. The tv shows we DON’T appear in. What we are being sold. What we are taught and especially what we aren’t being taught.
It’s being said, in every small little way. To provoke us. To dare us to challenge their authority and their position, knowing the result will ALWAYS be the same.
The damage is done.