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We were adrift—on purpose—flat on our backs, resting on those blue, floating beds that resorts loan out to beach-loving guests. The ones specifically designed for your comfort and relaxation. But there, in the warm and wonderful ocean, soaking up the Mexican sun, I was anything but comfortable or relaxed.

Instead, I was staring up at the cloudless sky, searching for composure and words to address what had just happened: My new friend/travel homey—a white woman—dropped the “n” word. Oh, and not the rappin’ gangsta-style -gga version. No, it was the full six letters. Hard “r.”

I never saw it coming. The conversation started innocuously enough. We were chatting, trading bad date stories and respective, get-out office gossip. Soon we were on to family quirks. That’s when she shared the one about her sister’s penchant for picking bad boyfriends. “My sister’s famous for bringing home these complete losers,” she began. “You know, like, the guy who tells the nigger joke at the Thanksgiving dinner table.”

It was as if she had a bullhorn tucked into her bikini. Because “nigger” bellowed and echoed and rattled in my chest. Unfazed she kept going and giggling while I froze. What the hell do I say now?

Here’s the thing: I’m Canadian. I was born and raised in Montreal, so the whole American stereotype of the neck-rolling, Biiitch, No you di’n’t … somebody hold my earrings and get me some Vaseline, Angry Black Woman isn’t knee-jerk for me. (Is it really for anyone outside of reality television and Def Comedy Jams, anyway?)

But Canuck or no, I couldn’t let this moment curdle any further, right? I remember telling myself—badgering, really—that I needed to say something, even though she had already launched into another story.

Yes, I know she was trying to show how egregious her sister’s boyfriends are. she wasn’t trying to hurt me personally or insult me. I get it. But know what? It’s still not acceptable.

Set aside for moment—if it’s ever possible for the “n-word” to be acceptable—the weighty history of dehumanization, degradation and intolerance fastened to the word. What made this more offensive was my friend’s casualness in using it. She needed to know how inapt the whole thing was, no matter how smart or progressive a woman she was, who assuredly had black friends, me included.

Not just should, I needed to let her know that she couldn’t use that word–ever.  But in the end, I said nothing.

I didn’t know what to say or how to begin without it dissolving into an unbearable, vapid “why can’t I use it but Jay-Z can?” debate. I remained quiet for the remaining two days of our trip.

The n-word had salted everything, making me want to escape the escape and just get back home. By the time we got back to New York, the sting of the incident had let up some, but the bad taste lingered. I knew almost immediately after parting ways at the Taxi Stand that our budding friendship would always walk with a limp.

I filed the episode away in the back part of my head— that partially buried, but fully accessible section reserved for ugly, awkward moments, so they can be replayed randomly, complete with the “I Should Have Said…” soundtrack on loop.

We make these promises to ourselves to stand up to affronts big or small, to show people where the boundaries lie and when they’re skirting the edges. But the truth is, it takes conviction and grit to stick to those promises. To stick up for yourself or your beliefs, to stick to the script of what you should say. And as hokey or pseudo-Zen as it may sound, I care about where my words land, how they will affect others.

Yes, sticks and stones break bones, but words? Them shits hurt for real! They can cause deep damage when tossed carelessly about, leaving jagged scars behind. So I think it through, and search for the proper language to ensure that what I do say matches my intent. Sometimes that means the obnoxious moment passes before I’ve had a chance to grip it. But even then, it’s still my win. I’ll be ready for the next person who comes at me throwing jabs, sucker punches, haymakers… or just words.

But then something happened to scratch the “Shoulda Said” CD. Another n-word bomb.

It’s a few months later. Replace resort waters with cave-like magazine office, replace my travel buddy with a co-worker, and replace white woman with a white man, and your new scene is set.

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It was late evening and we were all in that wacky-sugar-crash zone. He and I started discussing pop culture (Fine! American Idol). Somehow we got to “The Aristocrats,” the famous ultra-dirty joke. I wasn’t familiar, so he explained.

“You can also flip it,” he said. “So the punch line would then be, ‘I call my act, The Nigger C*nts.’”

My mouth sailed open and I made a bizarre noise—a disturbing mix of a whimper and a gurgle. I returned to my desk and stayed there for an hour or more, thinking it through. I was stunned, but not into silence. Not this time.

Before I left for the night, I went back to his desk and asked if he had a minute to chat. Since it was Cubicle Town in there, I suggested we head to the tiny, back conference room. We sat across from each other and, with surprising calm and focus, I told him that his joke went too far. Before I could get into all the ways it was deplorable, he cut me off with an apology.

“I knew it was inappropriate the minute it left my lips,” he said. I accepted his mea culpa and let that dirty water float on under the bridge. I felt vindicated for (and spurred on by) the Mexican affair right then. And I was finally able to let it drift away too.

This post originally appeared on XOJane. Republished with permission. Click here for more Nicole on XOJane! 

  • http://www.facebook.com/nieshag Niesha Gourdine

    it is not ok!! point blank!

  • Mademoiselle

    I stayed away from this topic during all the Django debates because there was already so much else about the film’s content to debate in my opinion, so I’ll say it here (and I’m sure I’ll be just as unpopular with this as I was with my view of Django).

    I don’t have a problem with anyone using the word. If that’s a part of your vocabulary, then so be it. What I do have a problem with is someone referring to me in general or specifically with that word, but the race of the person using it doesn’t matter. Just like I don’t care who uses bitch, but when you start characterizing me or someone in my life or women-in-general with that word, it’s a problem. The woman in this article obviously wasn’t referring to anyone as a nigger. She was noting how her sister dates guys who make nigger-jokes. I’m sure if these guys were just making stereotypical black-jokes, she’d have said black-jokes, but it’s obvious they make jokes specifically about niggers, with nigger being the main theme of the jokes. Her use of the word in this example doesn’t elicit any negative emotions from me because she’s just explaining a situation that (presumably) she doesn’t participate in. I don’t have whatever mechanism it is that others have that make nigger sensitive to hear from one person and not from another. I only have context and intent to rely on because it’s the same word regardless of the mouth that says it. There is no intent that makes me ok with being called a nigger/a, but absent being called one, I can discuss the word all day with any race. It’s how I treat all derogatory words. They exist. They have meaning. They have applications. But they don’t have exclusive membership clubs for their use.

    Final note: I’m not someone who wastes time arguing with complete (white) strangers who try to goad black people into confrontation by calling them a nigger to their faces. Again, it’s just a word, despite it’s history. And because it’s just a word, I’m not going to put unnecessary energy into defending myself to someone who wouldn’t get any energy from me otherwise. People at work, neighbors, friends, family, however, will all be put in their place if they get too comfortable with it.

  • Kisha

    Latest experience with this issue-I have a dear white female friend who dates black men frequently. After having a few glasses of wine, she tearfully told me that a white man, who she turned down after he pursued for some time, had angrily called her a “nigger lover” when she said she wasn’t interested in him. She got increasingly upset and launched into tirade of what she wished she had said to him. “I’d rather be a nigger lover than a racist piece of white trash!” she yelled. I and another black person present for the meltdown were quite uncomfortable. Once she sobered up, I told her that while I understood where she was coming from, she was inappropriate in her ranting. She apologized and I let it go. No if I didnt know her as well as I do, it prolly wouldnt went down as nicely.

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