This past weekend, during which I went to several rocking parties, I got called a "nigger" by a white person. This white person, whom I had never met before, was trying to be friendly but was too drunk to know or remember what was appropriate. How did I handle it? Well, let me tell you the story...
I arrived with my date, a fine sister, to a really fun party thrown by a good friend of mine. The multicultural crowd was dancing to fantastic funk and soul music. Positive energy was very much in effect. Having saved our appetites for the function, we located the food table and made our way to it. The plates-forks-napkins setup was located at the opposite end from where we were standing, and there was a group conversing right in front of where we needed to get to. I walked over to ask if they wouldn't mind moving for a second so that we could get closer.
The group looked to be pretty engaged in whatever discussion they were having. I did not immediately interrupt, but rather stood behind them (their backs were turned to me) waiting for a break in the action -- and also giving them a chance to recognize my presence and maybe realize what I was there for. After about a minute, and no break in the action, I decided to politely interrupt. First, I said the standard "Excuse me," but no one acknowledged my presence. The music was booming and I figured they didn't hear me. So, I tapped the closest person to me, a white male, on the shoulder and said, "Excuse me, brother, I'd like to just grab a plate."
He turned around, apologized, and moved aside. I smiled and told him an apology wasn't necessary, and began to get plates and forks for me and my date. However, as I was doing so, the brother kept talking to me, making jokes about why he felt he had to apologize to me for being in the way. He was looking me up and down, checking out the way I was dressed, which was fly, I don't mind telling you. I had on nice collared lavender colored shirt and blue jeans, with shoes. My date and I had definitely arrived dressed to impress.
He was obviously at least a little drunk. His words were slurred as he began jokingly explaining to me that he had better apologize because he didn't want me to "kick his ass." I am no stranger to this kind of reaction from time to time from non-black and -brown people, though it is rare to get it from someone whom I do not know. In our society, there is something about a Black Man dressed nicely that seems to illicit this reflexive response in situations where we have to get the attention of someone who is blocking our way. In fact, I am quite sure most Black men in America, no matter how they are dressed, experience this, and I certainly am no stranger to it.
I laughed politely at the brother's statement and, going along with the jovial moment, assured him that no such thing could ever happen. Instead of dropping it there, he continued on, making more comments about my clothes and how good I looked. He then got closer to me, and patted me on the shoulder as he continued to speak about how it looked like I was person of power and influence and probably could do something about anything I wanted done. Because this was all in a very joking and good spirited tone -- touching included -- I took it that way. In the course of his string of compliments on how important of a person I seemed to be, he actually said, "You a bad nigger!"
"What?" I asked in mild disbelief. "What did you just call me? Are you serious, man?"
He didn't flinch one bit, back up or stutter in his response from the question I asked. He shrugged and made that "obviously, I am joking" face, and then said something to imply that calling me a nigger was nothing. Immediately, I understood that this wasn't the first time this brother had done this to a black person in a one-on-one encounter.
He is the progressive white guy at the parties who thinks he is so down and in tune with every aspect of the black experience in America to the point where he thinks he can comfortably say and use the word "nigger" in a black person's presence. He could have some "savior" job or role doing work that directly impacts the lives of black and brown people. A lot of folks in those jobs and/or roles, being around black and brown people every day, develop a notion that they can employ elements of our colorful communication dynamics to better communicate with us. It is part of the psychology of wanting to connect, and people love when someone outside of their culture makes an effort to connect by displaying general knowledge about the culture. This is particularly true in social settings and such attempts to connect are used as icebreakers. I do it myself, such as speaking Spanish, Arabic or Russian to those who I know speak it. However, I know there is a delicate art to doing so as well. Say or do the wrong thing, and you could be asking for trouble.
He said, "What? Nigger? Ah, come on man," as if it were no big deal, also with the shrug again. So, I responded, "Nigga, YOU can't say 'nigger.'" He kept on talking with his dismissal, drunk and obnoxious, and then I could feel that he was gearing up to say "nigger" again.
I am neither a fighter nor someone who seeks to fuel aggressive confrontation, but there are a few things for which I will throw down in an instant. Family is one, and racism directed at me or my family is another.
"You know, I should knock you the fuck out for calling me a 'nigger,' but instead, I'm going to educate you," I said instinctively.
Funny enough, after identifying me as someone who would possibly harm him for being in the way as I was trying to get plates for food, the brother actually asked me, quite sincerely, why I might pop him in the mouth for calling me a nigger. It gave me an opportunity to think. I thought about my date who witnessed the whole thing, my friend whose party it was, and my other friends in attendance. I thought about the table behind him that he would fly over should I decide to actually hit this dude, and the mess it would make. I thought about the police showing up and the possibility of being locked up because of this silly individual who was drunk enough to make one of the most brazen and ignorant decisions one could make in our supposedly post-racial America. I thought about a few years ago when Michael Richards (Kramer from Seinfield) called a black man a nigger after the guy heckled him during his comedy act.
I explained to the brother that, first, he wasn't black. Second, that because he wasn't black he did not have the historical experience to use the word. I let him know that he did not share the history of black people having to endure centuries of persecution, with the word "nigger" being an enforcing agent of unspeakable torture. I stayed cool while breaking this down to him and I did not yell at him to cause a scene. The music was still bumping and people were coming and going from the food table, completely unaware of the powder keg situation taking place right next to them.
He said he didn't mean anything by calling me a "Bad Nigger." He meant it as a compliment in jest at a party. I told him that he should not be using the word socially like he was black -- at all. Upon asking him what made him think he could use the word 'nigger' anyway, I realized that I wasn't paying any attention to the smoking hot goddess who was my date for the evening. So, I cut off his drunken explanation and told him that he owed me and my date an apology for having used the word in our presence. He said that he would not apologize.
At that a moment a black sister walked up on us and began talking to my date. I later found that she recognized me from the arts advocacy and outreach work I do and came to say hello, but was waiting for me to finish speaking with the guy who had just called me a nigger.
I saw her walk up from my periphery, and told the brother I was in this stalemate with that what he did in calling me a Nigger was so bad, that if I told her what he said, she might even knock him out. He seemed to not be phased as he laughed it off, and began to tell me more about how he didn't mean it in a derogatory way.
Again, the guy began to touch and pat my shoulder as he worked to convince me that he meant no harm. This time, after being called a nigger by this brother, and declining to apologize, it felt very much like he thought he was patting a beast trying to calm it down. This particular attempt to connect through touch felt condescending.
I let him know that I didn't approve of him touching me and let him know that since he didn't want to apologize that I would have no more time for his company. Besides, there was my fine ass date I was ignoring, and still, despite this fool, much partying to be had. I wasn't gonna let this cat ruin our night. He still was insistent on engaging me in the conversation of why he thought it was okay to say nigger in black people's presence. I again told him that his refusal to apologize made anything being pleasant between us, impossible. He was hurt by me saying this. I could see it on his face.
I imagine I had been the first black person to ever hold his or her ground on demanding from him, a white man, the respect our ancestors lived, fought and died for, battling white supremacy and unspeakable racism for our part in the story of America. He wanted to be chummy and even asked for a hug from me in his drunkenness. I refused. After some back and forth about this, he eventually apologized for calling me a nigger... and offered a handshake.
I shook his hand in acknowledgement, told him "okay" and "thank you." I let him know that now I had to go and get back to my night of having a great time at the party with my date. I once again pointed her out to acknowledge her presence. He acknowledged her alright, but then said something to the effect that she could wait, and that he wanted to continue our conversation about use of the word "nigger."
I was feeling quite proud of how I handled the situation, but his dismissal of my lady caused me to gamble on an action that I hoped would end our interaction immediately and for the rest of the night. I knew he already was intimidated by me from just tapping him on the shoulder to get his attention so I could get a plate from the table he was blocking. I knew, though he joked about it, that he really thought a Black man was apt to whip his ass if he got in one's way. So...
I let him know that in addition to having called me a nigger, he was now being directly disrespectful to my date. I calmly put my plate of food and drink down on the table, positioned myself optimally, and told him that if he wanted to continue to talk that he should:
Call me a nigger again, and that I would be happy to show him where I exactly where I was coming from.
My date, having witnessed the unbelievable exchange, stepped in front of me, said a few calming words, and gently pulled me away from the guy. I was very appreciative of her in that moment. As I type this, I am thankful and in admiration of how she handled it, and let me handle it.
He apologized again, and finally left me to rejoin my date and enjoy the party.
I saw the guy milling around afterwards, and considered informing the party organizers about what happened to me. I decided not to though, because of the occasion, and because my friends who would never approve of anyone like that in their midst for a joyous celebration. They most certainly would have insisted that he leave, but I know that, psychologically, it would have ruined their night. Just as if I had gone ahead and popped the brother in the mouth or yelled at him, making a huge scene -- well within my rights after being called a nigger -- it would have ruined everyone's night.
A sense of pride and the accomplishment of utilizing wisdom in this situation came upon me. I felt that containing the situation, and by handling it one on one, I quite possibly may have ended this white brother's practice of using "nigger," or any other racial slur, in a joking way to connect with people culturally. It was a teaching moment where I learned a lot about myself and where I am when it comes to responding to, and handling, the nuances of racism that black and brown people have to endure on a daily basis in our society.