Essay Non-Fiction posted April 28, 2015


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Must You Say Nigger?

by michaelcahill

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I believe that "nigger" is the vilest word ever to exist in any language. I realize my proximity to the word and my perception of its meaning is perhaps biased. I'm sure there are other words equally worthy of revulsion. But I'm unaware of them in the same empirical way. I don't doubt that words like "kike", "spic", "gook", "nip", "chink", are all equally vile in other individual's experiences. I simply did not witness them and thus have little I can offer of my own experience. I acknowledge that, in truth, each word is of the same ilk and worthy of the same derision. I mean no disrespect to anyone. This is not to exclude any race or group from a worthy discussion. I'm merely discussing what I am most knowledgeable about.
 
 As a child, I had no awareness of racism of any kind. There were no black children in Alhambra, California in the fifties when I began grammar school. I knew about slavery of course. But it was a practice long abandoned to the distant past. It had been wiped out by the Civil War and Honest Abe freeing the slaves. Case closed, right?
 
No, I was never that naive. Again though, I had no frame of reference in the fifties, no black people in my world, no reference.
 
I began to learn about black people in the early sixties. President Kennedy spoke of civil rights and there were black people on the nightly news. They seemed most unhappy with their state of their affairs. Images of the South came to my attention. "White Only", "We don't serve negroes", segregation, integration, inter-racial marriage, all things I knew nothing about. We didn't have 'white only' in Alhambra because there where 'only whites'.
 
My ignorance sickened me. All of this injustice in the land of the free and the home of the brave and I didn't have a clue. I watched in stunned awareness as the 1963 Watts riot occurred about twenty minutes up the 10 freeway. I lived in a little alcove right outside of Los Angeles. Surely, the great progressive state of California wasn't like the Confederate fantasizing South.
 
We were worse. Our racism was understood. We didn't need signs to tell a black person where they were welcome and where they were not. My family turned out to be racist. These liberal Democrats who never voted Republican would never actively harm another person or join a lynch mob. But in their hearts, they didn't approve. They would die and roll over in their grave if I brought a black girlfriend home. It never came to the test because, well, there weren't any black girls in Alhambra.
 
Now, decades later I'm hearing that word again, nigger. Indeed, it is repeated over and over in regular conversations by young black people I encounter.
 
"You going out tonight, nigger? Nigger, you got to take Marytonette out. That nigger is fine. Nigger, nigger, nigger, blah, blah, blah."
 
Hell, I'm a nigger now. "Hey, my nigger, how's about a smoke?" Gee whiz, mister. I'm an old white man … We'll I suppose it doesn't hurt to call me nigger.
 
I realize that there is a youthful rebellious reason to take that word as their own. I remember being young. I relate to their disdain for the world we've provided them. I understand that using that word is a way to defeat its original meaning.
 
But, for me, I can do nothing but cringe every time I hear it. I have a flood of images cascading through my mind. Ku Klux Klan members burning crosses, black people being drug behind pick-up trucks driven by howling rednecks, old men in rocking chairs looking with hatred at strangers walking by because they're black; it's a real slide show with no end.
 
What I hate more than anything is the truth of what's in my heart when I see a group of black people throwing that word around. What I feel, in a word, is superior. I think to myself that these are ignorant people who don't have a clue what the true meaning of that word is. I bristle at the casual way they toss that word around and I see it beginning to define them. Yes, that is pretty damn arrogant of me.
 
There it is. I find the unwelcome thought in my head that these people by tossing the word nigger around are becoming that. I'm calling them that in my mind. Does it matter I would never say it or allow myself to act towards them improperly. Of course, it doesn't matter; I've already done worse. I've embraced it in my mindset.
 
There's no revelation that we have a racist history. There can be no doubt that racism is still prevalent in a great number of the populace. But, the real problem is that people like me are racist. That is the reason racism still exists. I'm the problem. I'm not happy to realize this. I've spent a long time believing I'm part of the solution, Mr. Racial Tolerance, not a racist bone in my body. Great word isn't it, 'tolerance'. Is that the goal? I hope not.
 
The irony would make me laugh if it wasn't such a horrible revelation to me. This bleeding-heart-liberal, hanging-on-to-the-sixties-for-dear-life, lover-of-all-mankind-in-all-their-diversity, is a racist. This man who marched for civil rights is a racist. This man, who would knock someone out for calling one of his black friends a nigger, is a racist.
 
I believe I have to take a long look at myself and take steps to repair what's in my heart.
 
I believe fixing myself is the first step in ending racism in this damaged world.
 
It turns out the most difficult task in changing hearts and minds is making a hypocrite realize that is what they are. It comes as a shock and it doesn't come easy.


 




 


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I'm not altogether comfortable releasing this. I fear it may be taken the wrong way. But, if we don't write about what we think, how are we going to know the thoughts and feelings of each other. I hope no one finds this offensive. It's difficult to write about a word and not use it. I'm sure everyone is more than familiar with the word.

As a true blathering writer I tried to make this concise. There was a lot more on my mind, but I want this to be to the point. I know what thing I'll never say again is, "I don't see color". I clearly do and suspect that most people are in the same category.

Thanks to Bing Images for the accompanying photo. Just a reminder of a different context....

Oh, by the way, this was written for the "I Believe" prompt. But I hadn't found the nerve to post it yet. :))





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