A White Girl and the “N” Word

July 15, 2013 § 5 Comments

Diverse kids

When I was in elementary school in 1970’s Brooklyn, NY (maybe third grade?) a kid (who was white) told me I had “n*gger lips.”  It felt weird, because I wasn’t sure if it was a compliment or not, but I kind of knew something wasn’t right about it.  Honestly, I don’t remember how I responded.  Maybe I looked confused or maybe I tried to be cool about it.  I was seven or eight.  I was also kinda socially awkward and, frankly, just happy to be getting some attention from a peer – that much I do remember.

This led, however, to an exchange with my sister I’ve never forgotten. She’s two years older than I am, and we walked home from school together.  To say I looked up to her is an understatement.  So we’re walking home that day and I tell her, “Guess what?  So-and-so told me today I had n*gger lips!”

She stopped dead in her tracks and looked at me in shock.  Then she narrowed her eyes and said, “I’m not even going to dignify that with a response.”  And she kept walking.  (Yes, that is exactly what she said, and yes, she was articulate and mature enough in fifth grade to deliver the line that effectively.)  That’s when I knew it was bad.  Then I knew I’d said something terrible.  And Rachel disapproved.  That was just as bad.  Now I can’t even write the word without substituting an asterisk for the “i.”

Years later, I had my own opportunity to teach someone younger than I about using that word.  When I taught eighth grade civics in Virginia, I had some kids in my class who were black.  One day, before class started, they were joking around with each other, and the “N” word was being bandied about.  They were very clearly using it to refer to themselves and each other without the slightest degree of animosity or insult intended.

They were surprised when their 24-year-old white teacher told them to knock it off and watch their language.  I don’t remember many of the details of this conversation, but in essence, they said it was fine for them to use that term, since they were black.  I responded something to the effect of, “I don’t care what color you are – I’m offended by that word used by anyone, in any context.  As a teacher, it is a racial slur, and not permitted in my classroom.  And for your information, referring to each other using that term makes it easier for racists to justify the term to describe you.”  Or something like that.  They were very good kids and gave me no problem about it whatsoever.  The issue never came up again,  but I’ve often wondered about the complexities of that exchange.

Just like my sister Rachel knew she needed to respond the way she did in fifth grade, I knew I was within my rights, and even obligation, as a teacher to forbid certain language in the classroom.  As a civics teacher especially, I couldn’t resist adding a lesson in social commentary.  Did I overstep in telling them they were sort of providing racists justification (rightly or wrongly) for their use of slurs?  Maybe.  No parents contacted the school in outrage, and the kids seemed to be over the incident as quickly as it happened.

I still sometimes wonder, though, if I did the wrong thing by possibly placing part of the burden of racism on their 13-year-old shoulders by implying they were contributing to it. It involved a critique of my students’ language, but it was an attempt to empower them, regardless.  (Had I heard a white kid using the “N” word, I’d have gone into orbit and they would have been scraping me off the ceiling.)

I guess the reason why the incident still sits with me 20 years later (okay, now you know how old I am) is that I give a lot of thought to the importance of the source in a lesson like that.  Would that statement have had more impact if it came from a black teacher?  From a male teacher?  Did the fact that I was a young white woman delegitimize the criticism?  Probably to a degree.  I certainly don’t agonize over the incident, nor do I think I did much damage, if any, but it stays with me nonetheless – as an exchange in which I’m pretty sure (and I definitely hope) I did the right thing.

This post originally appeared on The Broad Side on June 27, 2013.

Image via iStockphoto/Jani Bryson



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§ 5 Responses to A White Girl and the “N” Word

  • My husband and I have wondered the same thing! Why it’s okay for some black people to use the N word freely amongst themselves, but then take offense if that word was said by a white person to them. Like you, I think the word is offensive regardless of who uses it. I just find it interesting that some people only find it offensive if it’s used by certain people but okay if used within their own group—kind of a double standard.

  • I used to think along those lines, but less wondering why I COULDN’T use the term (I know perfectly well why – it sounds and feels very different coming out of a white person’s mouth) – and more wondering why they WOULD use the term at all given how ugly it is. 20 years later, I do understand how the term has been adopted and accepted by the black community as acceptable to them, BY them only, and I wince less when I hear it used in the way it was used by my students. Back then, though, it was less common, and I had ONLY heard it used in a derogatory and denigrating way, so I reacted how I did.

    Double standards aren’t always by definition “bad.” They just “are.” It may not feel fair, but fair is never about everyone being allowed to do, say, or have the exact same things. It’s about them having the opportunity to do what is right and best for them.

    Thank you so much for reading and taking the time to comment.

  • I think the double-standard argument doesn’t ever apply to this because we’re talking about a SMALL percentage of people who use that word. There’s no way I would walk into a place of business where a lot of fellow Black people work and shout that word out. That’s crazy! But it’s also the most elementary place to begin talking about race because people get stuck there.

    They talk ad nauseum about WHY THEY CAN’T SAY THAT WORD and it speaks so much more to the privilege they feel they must have in saying it that they take it as a personal affront.

    I think you mentioned the important part already, Aliza, and that is that it’s complex. Very hard to put your finger on and take it. If we all started from a place of, “Ok, you can say that. I can’t. Let’s talk about policies and unfair laws that our country has to own.” then I think we’d be in a much better position right now.

  • Hi Aliza! Great piece – my first visit to your blog but not my last. Glad to see you are well. Back when we were in undergrad, I was quite comfortable with the “use it among ourselves” attitude about the term. But, as I’ve grown older and more reflective, and as I have gained greater knowledge and understanding about the history of Black people and the construction of race, I rarely even think of it unless it is in the course of teaching. It may also be that I have spent the last two decades living in a world of privilege and far removed from the social and spatial settings where it seemed to be much more accepted. Regardless, I have shed the idea that referring to other Black people in such a fashion represents some sort of reclamation project, or in some way is an affectation of intimacy. It is now forever linked to an historical – and contemporary – legacy of oppression and exploitation.

    • Hey, Tyrone! How have you been??? So nice to see you here! I love what you wrote, and how even though your education and maturation process have led you to a different attitude, you don’t denigrate or deny the younger generations their right to use and interpret the word as they see fit. As you know, though, I completely agree with your view of it now.

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