How Do You Deal with the N-Word?

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.
Publish date:
February 13, 2012
microaggressions, n-word

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. 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.