The N-Word and White Complicity

 Me: What Are you doing later?

Him: Grabbing drinks with friends.

Me: Who?

(He rattles off some names and all I hear are guys’ names.)

Me: That sounds like a guy’s night.

Him: Yeah,…you probably shouldn’t come anyway.

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I hear the slight hesitation and what he says has me curious. I prod as I normally would. My friend, 20-something year old white male, tells me that I would not be comfortable around one of the guys. To that I reply, why? He confesses that said friend, after a few drinks, drops the n-word. A lot.

I’m shocked but not for the reason he thinks. My first exposure to the word “nigger” came when I was 8-10 years old. An elderly white man referred to my older sister and I as niggers when this white teenage boy tripped in McDonalds. Despite the fact we were nowhere near him, that man pointed his arthritic finger at us and said “it was those niggers over there.” No one said anything to us. Everyone cast embarrassed glances at us. The manager tried to quiet the old man down. My sister and I wrapped up our half-eaten food and left. We told our parents. My mom shook with anger.

To say that the n-word upsets me is an overstatement. I have been on the receiving end of it on multiple occasions. Friends have endured humiliation from racists. As a person of color, it’s like you grow a thick callous to it. A shield of protection. Admittedly, if I’m caught at the wrong moment, when the shield is down, it hurts. It hurts like hell.

What do you do? I asked my friend. He explained that he tries to calm his friend down and tell him to be quiet.

But you don’t use it as an opportunity to tell him why it’s wrong to use that language, I said.

He acted as if my words were an insult. A wound that I had inflicted on him. He feigned a response and prattled on about how he doesn’t like to get political. I didn’t say anything. I listened but my silence made him uneasy. That, dear readers, is why I was shocked. I naively thought that my friend, a seemingly “with it” kind of guy would be the first to strike down that behavior not passively accept it.

It reminded me of that McDonalds experience. Not the old man but the reaction of those present. None of them stepped up to defend two little black girls from the offensive speak of a significantly older white man. Rather, they looked away or, in the case of the manager, tried to calm him down. Where was the outrage? The sympathy. The consoling of two little girls.

But that’s the thing about being black. We don’t get to be kids. We don’t get to be protected from the horrors of the world. Rather we are thrust right into it before we’re ready and, in some cases like mine, without our parents to walk beside us in it.

Him: I feel like you’re judging me.

Me: Oh, I am. I’m not going to lie I’m judging you right now.

I explained to him that attitudes like that will never change unless they are exposed and challenged. More importantly, it takes more people (read: white people) to call out friends, family, and others who refer to any group in a derogatory, racist way.

White silence is white complicity in racism.

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