THE BLOG
12/31/2014 11:37 pm ET Updated Mar 02, 2015

That Day After Christmas

I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a running joke among the residents of my block is that, unfortunately, we sometimes have to tolerate unpleasant sights and whiffs of each others' garbage as a result of the way our gaggle of sanitation workers barrels from house to house, leaving unsightly reminders of our trash. When the sanitation truck rolls away, the area is strewn not only with our trash but with our trashcans and recycle bins now littering the block too. Each neighbor must retrieve his or her receptacles from a mountain of them. One neighbor who lives a couple of houses down from me calls trash day "anti-trash day," as she cleans up after the sanitation workers.

On the Friday after Christmas, when the sanitation truck drove away (pickup is usually every Thursday, but with Christmas falling on that day this year, it rolled over to Friday), another neighbor went to retrieve her receptacles expecting nothing out of the ordinary. But as she rolled them back into her yard, she couldn't believe what she found scrawled on the side of one of the receptacles: the "N" word.

In 1998 the NAACP successfully convinced Merriam-Webster lexicographers to clearly designate the "N" word as a racial slur before the definition. Still, the "N" word is firmly embedded in the racist lexicon that was and still is used to disparage people of color, and our culture's cavalier use of the slur today speaks to how Americans of all races have become anesthetized to its destructive effects. While the battle to purge the "N" word from the American lexicon has been long, arduous, and unsuccessful, it is even harder to purge the sting of the word from the American psyche.

Shocked by the sight of the epithet, my neighbor took a picture and hurried to remove the graffiti. But the stubborn oil pastel left an indelible mark, reminding her how hatred can be visited upon us so suddenly and unexpectedly.

Cambridge, proudly dubbed "The People's Republic of Cambridge," is often ranked as one of the most liberal cities in America. And with two of the country's premier institutions of higher learning -- Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- drawing students and scholars from around the world, the city rivals the UN in diversity and multiculturalism.

Cambridge is also known for a lot of firsts in this country. For example, in 2004 it became the first city in Massachusetts -- and therefore in the United States -- to legally issue marriage-license applications to same-sex couples. It was also the first city in the country to elect an openly gay African-American mayor, Ken Reeves. And in 2008 Cambridge did it again, electing the country's first openly lesbian African-American mayor, E. Denise Simmons.

Cambridge no doubt is a progressive city. In Cambridge, where racial tensions are far less pronounced than in Ferguson or New York City, particular between black communities and the police, people of color can feel somewhat removed from nagging reminders of intolerance and insensitivity.

However, when you scratch below Cambridge's surface, intolerance and insensitivity can still be found. As in the South, where intolerance sees only race and tries to keep people in their place, Cambridge maintains its racial and class boundaries, not by designated "colored" water fountains, toilets, or restaurants but by neighborhood. The 02138 area code is a tony enclave, whereas the notorious Area 4 is a predominately black, poor, and working-class area.

Cambridge may be multicultural, but sadly, it isn't integrated. In fact, fewer than five families of color reside on my block.

The neighbor whose trashcan was vandalized is actually Southeast Asian, and her family has lived on the block for 20-plus years, with two children having graduated from Cambridge Rindge and Latin School and Buckingham Browne & Nichols School, respectively, and one now in attendance at Harvard.

She and her family invited me to go with them to the police station to file their complaint. They wanted not only to make sure that the police had a record of the incident but to ascertain whether other residents of color anywhere in Cambridge had had similar experiences. While the Cambridge Police Department today is nothing like it was in 2009, when Cambridge police arrested renowned Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, who is black, for breaking into his own home after he found the front door jammed, the police officer who took my neighbors' complaint was politely dismissive as they showed him the photo and nervously struggled to explain the incident.

As quiet, law-abiding, upstanding residents of Cambridge, my neighbors wonder who could have possibly directed such hatred toward them. The answer is that it really doesn't matter. What does matter is that we cannot become unconscious and numb to the use and abuse of the power and currency that this racial epithet still carries in our society. Why? Because it thwarts the daily efforts of those of us who are working hard to ameliorate race relations. What also matters is that no person of color should ever have to experience what my neighbors did that day after Christmas.