A White Girl and the ‘N’ Word

Diverse kidsThe recent Paula Deen controversy has me thinking about an incident that happened to me when I was a child.

When I was in elementary school in 1970’s Brooklyn, NY (maybe third grade?) a kid (who was white) told me I had “n*gger lips.”  It felt weird, because I wasn’t sure if it was a compliment or not, but I kind of knew something wasn’t right about it.  Honestly, I don’t remember how I responded.  Maybe I looked confused or maybe I tried to be cool about it.  I was seven or eight.  I was also kinda socially awkward and, frankly, just happy to be getting some attention from a peer – that much I do remember.

This led, however, to an exchange with my sister I’ve never forgotten. She’s two years older than I am, and we walked home from school together.  To say I looked up to her is an understatement.  So we’re walking home that day and I tell her, “Guess what?  So-and-so told me today I had n*gger lips!”

She stopped dead in her tracks and looked at me in shock.  Then she narrowed her eyes and said, “I’m not even going to dignify that with a response.”  And she kept walking.  (Yes, that is exactly what she said, and yes, she was articulate and mature enough in fifth grade to deliver the line that effectively.)  That’s when I knew it was bad.  Then I knew I’d said something terrible.  And Rachel disapproved.  That was just as bad.  Now I can’t even write the word without substituting an asterisk for the “i.”

Years later, I had my own opportunity to teach someone younger than I about using that word.  When I taught eighth grade civics in Virginia, I had some kids in my class who were black.  One day, before class started, they were joking around with each other, and the “N” word was being bandied about.  They were very clearly using it to refer to themselves and each other without the slightest degree of animosity or insult intended.

They were surprised when their 24-year-old white teacher told them to knock it off and watch their language.  I don’t remember many of the details of this conversation, but in essence, they said it was fine for them to use that term, since they were black.  I responded something to the effect of, “I don’t care what color you are – I’m offended by that word used by anyone, in any context.  As a teacher, it is a racial slur, and not permitted in my classroom.  And for your information, referring to each other using that term makes it easier for racists to justify the term to describe you.”  Or something like that.  They were very good kids and gave me no problem about it whatsoever.  The issue never came up again,  but I’ve often wondered about the complexities of that exchange.

Just like my sister Rachel knew she needed to respond the way she did in fifth grade, I knew I was within my rights, and even obligation, as a teacher to forbid certain language in the classroom.  As a civics teacher especially, I couldn’t resist adding a lesson in social commentary.  Did I overstep in telling them they were sort of providing racists justification (rightly or wrongly) for their use of slurs?  Maybe.  No parents contacted the school in outrage, and the kids seemed to be over the incident as quickly as it happened.

I still sometimes wonder, though, if I did the wrong thing by possibly placing part of the burden of racism on their 13-year-old shoulders by implying they were contributing to it. It involved a critique of my students’ language, but it was an attempt to empower them, regardless.  (Had I heard a white kid using the “N” word, I’d have gone into orbit and they would have been scraping me off the ceiling.)

I guess the reason why the incident still sits with me 20 years later (okay, now you know how old I am) is that I give a lot of thought to the importance of the source in a lesson like that.  Would that statement have had more impact if it came from a black teacher?  From a male teacher?  Did the fact that I was a young white woman delegitimize the criticism?  Probably to a degree.  I certainly don’t agonize over the incident, nor do I think I did much damage, if any, but it stays with me nonetheless – as an exchange in which I’m pretty sure (and I definitely hope) I did the right thing.

Aliza Worthington grew up in Brooklyn, NY, and now lives in Baltimore. She began writing in 2009 at the age of 40. Sometimes her writing follows The Seinfeld Model of “no learning, no hugging.” Other times it involves lots of both. She blogs about Life, Liberty and Happiness at “The Worthington Post.” Her work also appears in Catonsville Patch, Kveller, and has been featured in the Community Spotlight section of Daily Kos under the username “Horque.” Her writing has also landed in the “Winner’s Circle” on Midlife Collage twice. Follow her on Twitter at @AlizaWrites.

Image via iStockphoto/Jani Bryson

  • This is an excellent post and I think you did the right thing. I’m black and don’t like the N-word no matter who is using it. When I see younger people using it now by adding an “a” at the end, which is supposed to make it okay by them, it really saddens me. They don’t understand the history.

    • Aliza Worthington

      EXACTLY, and Thank you! The history geek in me just can’t stomach it, no matter what the context.

  • I never heard that word until I was old enough to watch movies that used it, historical movies like Glory. I never actually heard people use it in person until college, when I ended up with a terribly bigoted boyfriend, and some of the theater friends I had made horribly offensive jokes all the time. (I was very stupid back then.)

    I didn’t have the confidence to speak up then, to tell anyone off. I won’t abide it now. There is no excuse for bigotry.

    • Aliza Worthington

      Listen, we all grow. I couldn’t agree with your last sentence more! But you weren’t stupid. You were young. You know better now. Also, on a completely different topic, I LOVE the name of your blog!!!!

  • I love words—the way they sound, the power they have when used alone or together, the way they look on the page. But some words really are too ugly. It wasn’t until “The Vagina Monologues” came out that I could use the c-word out loud (not cancer–the other c-word).

    But just because I love words doesn’t mean I find all of them to be beautiful. Words said in anger are hideous. And this word, said so callously, not even in anger, just as a descriptive term, is one of the most hideous I know. Even thinking the word gives me pause.

    • Aliza Worthington

      No one is better at words than you, Leslie – you choose them brilliantly. xo

  • koshersalaami

    “And for your information, referring to each other using that term makes it easier for racists to justify the term to describe you.”

    That happens to be true.

    You’re wondering if you made them feel partially to blame for racism. Actually, I’d say exactly the opposite:

    You gave them a tool with which to reduce the justification of racism.

    Did you give them extra responsibility? Yes, but the right kind: not responsibility for racism but responsibility for combatting it.

    It seems trivial, but…. Many years ago in New York City, Mayor Giuliani tried something: He decided to clean up parts of the city from evidence of vandalism (like spray painting) and litter and to keep various kinds of panhandlers out of certain areas (particularly the dreaded Squeegee Men). The result was that crime dropped in those areas; people felt differently about adding to a mess than creating one. There may be analogous functions of language. I think it is harder to be disrespectful in a respectful environment.

    • Aliza Worthington

      Thank you so much – I have quite a few stories from my teaching days that confirm your analysis about being in a respectful environment. Not a trivial example at all. 🙂

    • Yep

    • Vicky

      Why do people always speak of the homeless as nothing but a nuisance? Believe it or not those “dreaded Squeegee Men” are people too.

  • Lezlie Bishop

    There is a lot of discussion about the N-word and who is “entitled” to use it. My grown son and I seldom disagree on much of anything anymore, but on this we do. He is a multi-talented young man, especially gifted in language and words. As he was growing up, he wrote song lyrics for many of the famous and/or notorious rappers who everyone seems to think throw the word “nigger” around all the time. As he explains it to me, the hip-hop culture consciously commandeered that word, change the spelling of it to “nigga” and turned it’s meaning, when used among themselves, as a term of endearment.

    My position has always been that the word should be stricken from the vocabulary of all people, now matter how it is spelled and what the intent is when used. I was a teacher myself once upon a time, and I didn’t allow that word in my classroom, in my range of hearing, in writing (except in literature) and definitely not in my home. My son wasn’t even allowed to play his rap tunes without earphones — I didn’t want to hear it.

    I would say you did precisely the right thing in that classroom. No, I don’t think the message wouldn’t have been any stronger from a black teacher; in fact, coming from a young white teacher probably made it more effective.

    Even though today there is a generational divide in the black community about the use of that word, a teacher of any color has the right to set the rules in her classroom. I say, good job, Teach!

    • Aliza Worthington

      Thank you so much for that response, Lezlie – I see both sides – yours AND your son’s. It’s your son’s analysis that makes me wonder if I shouldn’t have the reaction I have when I hear kids calling each other that name, namely: shock, anger, like someone has just blown foul cigarette smoke right into my face. Given the many people I respect who now hold your son’s view, though, I think though I would definitely had the same response if that happened now, maybe I have taken a slightly different tone with my students. Maybe it would have been less of a reprimand and more of a discussion. Who knows? I’m just grateful the discussion can happen at all. 🙂

      • Lezlie Bishop

        So am I, Aliza. So am I! Let’s agree to keep talking.

  • Excellent post, Aliza. Reflective, insightful and thought-provoking. Pretty much everything I want in a read.

    • Aliza Worthington

      That means a lot, Carol, thank you!

  • I think you did the right thing. You didn’t place the whole burden for racism on them. You gave them something about which to think. That’s not the same thing at all.

    You’re right, of course, that it does give racists cover when African-Americans use that word. And that should not be allowed. It’s an ugly word that needs to die.

    • Aliza Worthington

      Thanks, Ken – I couldn’t agree more with your last sentence.

  • Marti Teitelbaum

    One summer, when I was 10 years old, our neighbors asked me to feed and let out their dogs while they were at work each day. I was happy to do it and particularly happy to get paid for it until the husband thanked me and said “now we don’t have to put up with that n*ggr smell in our house.” Apparently, for many years their cleaning lady had been coming in daily to let the dogs out and they no longer had her doing that.
    I was so shocked I ran back to my house and told my 16-year-old brother. He stormed out of the house (with me trailing behind), told our neighbor off and wouldn’t allow me to accept any money from the neighbor for the work I had done.
    This was in 1958 in Maryland — which at that time was not the bastion of liberal views it is now. But even then, that word was unacceptable.
    That is one reason that the generational excuse for racist language doesn’t ring true to me — I’m of that older generation and even as a child that word made me feel sick.
    I don’t think you did anything wrong in what you said to your students, though I understand your hope that you didn’t create guilt in them that they were in some way responsible for the racist statements of others.

    • Aliza Worthington

      Marti, that is an awful and a wonderful story at the same time. Isn’t it amazing how our older siblings teach us something when we let them? 🙂

      And thank you for your kind and understanding remarks about my teaching experience.

  • Lisa Solod

    Great post. Love the insight. Love the lesson. Love the way you handled it. Good on you.

    • Aliza Worthington

      Thank you x 5. 🙂

  • Koshersalaami

    Maryland is half Southern, more so in 1958.

    • I live in Maryland now. Better than 1958, but still plenty far to go.

    • Aliza Worthington

      I live in Maryland now, and while it’s way better (I’m sure) than in 1958, we still have a long way to go.

  • Thank you, thank you, and thank you! 🙂

  • So in my house the N word was never used. I grew up in London UK in a very Jewish household, so while the N word was not used, The SCHVARZE word was. And it offended me. At 9 years old I told my grandmother that she was racist and I was never ever going to talk to her again if she used THAT word in my presence. To her credit she didn’t. But I have found that word is just as offensive as the N word.

  • I think that you did the right thing. And I truly appreciate you sharing this story with us, especially now. There is so much talk in the blogosphere and Internet that people go haywire with what to believe, what to feel, so I find your honesty completely refreshing.

    • Aliza Worthington

      Thanks, Andrea – I really appreciate your kind comment. 🙂

  • I’m from the south and it’s a completely unacceptable word to use in any context. I would never have used it then and I wouldn’t use it now. Great post, Aliza.

  • During the 70’s I also was growing up in up state New York and I will always remember a classmate telling me during recess that I was a spic (derogatory name meant to be an insult for Puerto Ricans), I didn’t know what it meant, but it felt as an insult. To this day I will always remember how wrong it felt.

    I personally and professional as a teacher think you did the right thing. Thumbs up and thanks for creating awareness.

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