In the days after Alvaro, an Argentine suitor in Buenos Aires, called me a nigger for rejecting him, I sought mental solace in the more soothing prose of James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison. Unlike Baby Suggs -- the mother-in-law of Sethe, the heroine of Morrison's classic novel Beloved -- who spent her final days in bed contemplating color ("Took her a long time to finish with blue, then yellow, then green. She was well into pink when she died"), my focus was black and white and the shades of gray that represented universal attitudes about the polar-opposite hues.
In search of some objective perspective, I posed the following question on Facebook: "Have you ever used the N-word? And if not, could extreme anger ever drive you to use it?"
The responses ran the gamut, but I was floored by the candor and cluelessness of one in particular:
"Let's face it; you know people are going to lie about this answer!!! I, on the other hand, have said it! And no, it is not because I am prejudiced. I haven't ever directly said it to someone's face either, but whoever was with me at the time has heard it come out of my mouth."
How deluded, I thought, and dissented emphatically -- though in the interest of not starting a Facebook war, I resisted the urge to call her as I saw her: She was a classic closet bigot. Calling a black person a nigger in the privacy of all-white company or even in your own mind is just as racist as shouting it from the rooftop of a slave plantation.
To use the word nigger in reference to a black person (especially in anger and outside of the hip-hop nigga context), whether in private or in public, to someone's face or behind his or her back, even to think it, means that you harbor racism within. To some degree, you consider black people to be inferior to white people. Contrary to popular belief, you don't have to wear a white sheet with a pointy hat and go around burning crosses to be racist. I believe that nearly everyone, myself included, to some minute degree or more, is prejudiced -- if not against blacks, against some other group. We all harbor prejudices of some kind, and many people are carelessly and casually racist while being perfectly pleasant otherwise.
Several of my Facebook friends reasoned that when people are angry, blinded by fury, they are driven to hurt the person responsible for their rage in the worst way possible. Fair enough. I couldn't argue with that. Still, it was a weak defense that would never hold up in the court of politically correct public opinion. Anger is never a justifiable excuse for violence, nor is it one for racist speech.
No matter how many black people you sleep with, how many you date or how many friends you have who are black, to use the word nigger as a nonblack person is to directly express and reflect the negative way in which you regard black people. (To those who carp about black people calling each other nigger in jest, I say, I don't love it, and it sets a poor example, but no matter how you try to spin it, due to the word's historical context and representation of oppression of blacks by whites, it's simply not the same.) Sure, there may be varying degrees of bigotry, from passive and racist mostly in thought to confrontational and violent, but in the end, it all comes down to the same thing.
That's also true with pejorative expressions based on sexual preference. Years ago, during an argument with my brother, who, like me, is gay, my sister called him a "faggot." Though she probably never gave it a second thought after she'd cooled down (just as Alvaro likely forgot all about his own "nigger" tirade -- until his next one), it was seared into my memory. From that moment on, I was never able to look at her without hearing her hurling that epithet at my brother and wondering what she really thought of me.
Years later, in a digital-age redux of that incident, my other brother, who is straight, dropped the F-bomb on me during an argument by email. "You're a stupid faggot that nobody likes," he wrote, in response to my leveling the L-word (loser) at him. I haven't spoken to him in the nine years since then. As I see it, racism and homophobia are two sides of the same coin. I can no more bring myself to have a relationship with someone who'd call me a faggot than with someone who'd call me a nigger.
I once read a New York magazine article that quoted John Amaechi, a former NBA center who is both black and gay, expressing a similar opinion regarding the separate-but-equal status of the two words in the chain of insults: "As a black man, there is no difference between calling me the N-word or calling me the F-word. Both words make me want to kill you."
In a sense, faggot can be even more hurtful because gay people haven't co-opted it as a term of endearment the way rappers and some blacks have done with nigger, draining the word of some of its venom. Faggot suggests homophobia as much as nigger coming from a nonblack does racism, and I find homophobia and racism equally unacceptable.
I've often found that racism is particularly strong in the male gay community, which is disappointing because, of all people, they should know better. We spend our youths feeling like outsiders, and our adult lives clamoring for equal rights, all the while excluding people and cherry-picking based on skin color and ethnic background, then blithely defending it with the P-word (preference).
On the other side of the dating spectrum, Alvaro, who was so casually racist in his response to my rejection, and Marcelo, another Argentine who hurled the N-word after failing to get his way with me, prove that dating black people or desiring them sexually, even to the point of obsession (especially to the point of obsession), doesn't automatically make you nonracist. After all, when you get right down to it, fetishizing blacks indicates an overawareness of race that is a main ingredient of racism. Even the term coined to describe it -- "jungle fever" -- is offensive, suggesting that black people are wild and untamed, feral animals, and to be attracted to them is a sickness.
My friend Rob once told me a disturbing story about an ex-girlfriend who was white. When he broke up with her, she responded with venom: "I should have known this would happen if I dated a nigger."
We are sleeping with our enemies, I thought as Rob shared his story. It made me suspicious of everyone who crossed my path. No, we never know what people are really thinking, which makes life both interesting and terrifying. I've been dumped before. I cried. I threw things. I lashed out. I entertained dangerous thoughts. I got angry. But I never resorted to name-calling.
In the end, the response of Rob's ex-girlfriend, of Alvaro, of Marcelo, had nothing to do with us. If you've been sleeping with trash, or trying to sleep with trash -- and that, basically, sums up how any nonblack person who uses the N-word views black people -- what does that make you?