I am a 38-year-old white man. Ever since I fled my nearly all-white college town in southern Minnesota in 1998, I have chosen to live in densely populated, diverse urban neighborhoods: the then-predominantly Puerto Rican and Orthodox Jewish Lower East Side of Manhattan, on the edge of Chinatown; the largely black South Side of Chicago; a North African-Muslim enclave in Brooklyn.
After 16 years, I have become used to city life, but not impervious to it. It still brings me face-to-face with my own intolerance.
One afternoon this spring, I was taking a Manhattan-bound F train to Hunter College, where I am an adjunct professor. I was reading the newspaper. At Smith and 9th Street, in Brooklyn, the subway doors opened and a piercing scream shattered my concentration. I looked up and saw where the scream was coming from: two teenage girls who had seen a group of young men they knew, and apparently this was extremely exciting for them. I couldn’t help it — I scowled.
The girls were white; their friends were black.
“That n**ga just glared at you,” one of the girls said, laughing. “Who?” her friend asked. “That bald-headed n**ga,” she said again, pointing at me from a distance of about 20 feet. They laughed louder and kept talking.
I knew I should ignore them. I knew they were just kids. But I rose from my seat anyway and approached them. “I can’t tell you what to call each other — but don’t call me that,” I said, my tone severe, reproachful. They squealed. “I’ll call you whatever the f**k I want,” the girl said.
“Do you know what that word means?” I asked pedantically, a way I would’ve hated to be spoken to at 15. But I’m not 15 anymore, and I felt compelled to make a point. “Do you know its history?”
“No, and I don’t give a f**k,” the girl shot back.
I glanced at her friends, whose grins had grown even wider, told her to look it up, and returned to my seat. My heart was pounding, my face flushed. Even my scalp was hot. I was shaking. It wasn’t the first time I’d been called a “n**ga.” And it wasn’t the first time it made me so angry.
I could say it’s because I hate what the word represents, the endemic racism that still permeates our society — usually in far less overt, and thus far more insidious, ways than it did 50 years ago. I could say it’s because for six years I lived with a black woman, whom I loved, whose family had become my family, and with whom I’d have had black children.
Or I could say, as so many have, that no one has the right to use that word. For more than 200 years, it has been used to disparage blacks, to oppress them, to cast them as less than human. I could say that calling someone a “n**ger” is tantamount to spitting in his face.
But she called me a “n**ga,” not a “n**ger,” and they aren’t the same thing. The former has become a pronoun for “person,” the latter a term weighed down by centuries of hate. And any of the reasons for my anger listed above would be self-serving and dishonest. My anger was visceral, not cerebral. It did not stem from principle.
Last fall, the black journalist Ta-Nehesi Coates argued in a piece for The New York Times, titled “In Defense of a Loaded Word,” that when it comes to the “N-word,” context is everything. Just as some women call each other “bitch,” some black people call each other “n**ger.” The desire to ban the word, he writes, “is not anti-racism, it is finishing school.” In other words, to ban that word is to hold black people to a double standard that says, “You don’t get to do what other historically oppressed groups get to do. You have to behave.”
I am familiar enough with Coates and his writing to say with confidence that he knows more about race relations and racism than I ever will. I defer to him on the subject’s history, its impact on the black community, and the N-word’s import within that community.
But in that piece, he does not address the difference between “n**ger” and “n**ga,” nor does he address the effect that either of those words has on white people, what that effect might suggest, or even if white people have a “right” to be affected by them at all.
Coates is right: context matters. A teenage white girl calling me a “n**ga” is not even in the same symbolic universe as me calling a black man or woman a “n**ger.” One is thoughtless and, ostensibly, innocuous; the other is a direct verbal assault on a human being. But does that mean it shouldn’t have offended me?
The girl from the train was born decades after the Civil Rights movement, years after Rodney King was beaten in Los Angeles, and possibly even after Amadou Diallo was riddled with 41 bullets in the Bronx. For her and countless other young non-black people in New York and everywhere else, the word “n**ga” is not about establishing solidarity, or “reclaiming” the word and turning it, as Coates writes, into a “marker of nationhood and community.”
I know that I said something to the girl on the train because she was white, her friends were black, and I am sick of hearing that word out in the world. But there was nothing noble in my anger. I wanted those kids to be more respectful, more knowledgeable, and more conscious of what they say and who hears them say it.
I was angry because cultural memory is not passed down, because a white teenage girl in Brooklyn didn’t “give a f**k” that she offended a stranger on the subway, and because her black friends thought it was hilarious.
Am I a “n**ga”? These days, the answer depends entirely on who you are.