I’m Black. I haven’t shared my photo, but in case you had any doubts, I am a Black American woman. Now I am very comfortable in my skin and I celebrate my identity. I love being Black. But my feelings about my identity have evolved over time.
I grew up in Washington, D.C., which is also known as Chocolate City. But in the Maryland suburbs situated just outside of the city, which is where I grew up, there wasn’t much diversity in the 80s. Often, I was the only black kid in my class. It was never really an issue for me. I always loved school and I thrived. But I was also somewhat of a “mascot” at school. I remember my mom commenting about how popular I was. “When I walk into the school, everyone knows who I’m there to see. They all know who you are,” she bragged. Even as a child, I knew that I wasn’t popular because of my glowing personality (’cause it DID glow, even back then!). When you’re the only black kid in the class and one of only a few in the entire school, you’re difficult to miss. Of course everyone knew my name – I stuck out like a sore thumb.
It’s hard being the token black kid. You wear the weight of the world on your shoulders. You field ignorant questions, asked “innocently” and you’re not supposed to show anger or aggression in response; you’re just supposed to shrug it off and forgive the ignorance, pretending to be grateful that people want to learn more about what makes you different. I’m sure some of the dumb sht*t people said was well intended, but as the old folk say: The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions, so… there’s that.
I was in the second grade when I was called a nigger for the first time. I was involved in a fierce game of kickball during recess. I wanted to pitch, and this little boy with white blonde hair who had designated himself the “captain” of our team looked me in the face and said, “We don’t let niggers pitch.”
I was floored.
The boy, Vernon, was popular. My best friend, also white, was his “girlfriend”. When Vernon spit the slur at me, I ran to tell his grandmother, who volunteered at our school, and she let him have it. I felt somewhat vindicated, but then I told my best friend how embarrassed I was that he’d said it. I expected her to side with me, but she didn’t. My world was rocked. In addition to my embarrassment, I felt betrayed. It was a sad day.
My parents were fitful when I reported the incident to them. My father was unsurprised, but nevertheless wanted to kill the kid; my mother was shocked and devastated that I was dealing with such a heavy incident at such a young age. She had hoped I would be protected from that ugly word for a little while longer. It came before she was ready. My feelings were hurt. I cried. But, surprisingly, I didn’t hate Vernon. I was just confused as to why someone would dislike me because I looked different from them.
It’s been almost 30 years since that incident happened, but I remember it like it was yesterday. I vividly see Vernon’s round face, his pale skin, colorless hair, and ice blue eyes staring at me with contempt when he called me the n-word. I’m not hurt by it now, but then… then, I was devastated. I recall quite clearly the feeling I had when he said the word. It was as though I’d been punched in the gut. I couldn’t breathe, then I felt hot, and finally I, literally, saw red. I’ve been called a nigger a few times since then, unfortunately, but none of the other incidents hurt quite like the first time. Vernon popped my n-word cherry, so to speak. Thanks, kid. Hooray.
So, that’s why I immediately felt like a knife had been driven deep into my chest, opening an old wound, when I saw the story about soccer player Mario Balotelli yesterday. Balotelli, a striker for AC Milan whose parents are Ghanaian, was taunted with racial slurs by the opposing team’s fans. Apparently, the slurs were so hurtful, this man broke down and sobbed on the sidelines.
Now, who knows whether this incident was Balotelli’s first experience with racial slurs (although I doubt that he’s managed to escape other incidents during 20+ years on this Earth), but what we do know is that he was hurt enough to be reduced to tears on the field, which is MAJOR for an athlete since sportsmen are typically known for their bravado and masculinity, making such an emotional spectacle extremely rare. Sure, he’s European and maybe they’re more in touch with their feelings than American athletes (I’m aware that this is a stereotype and major generalization, but just go with it), but this is obviously a big deal since it’s reached us across the pond.
Also this week, Marcus Smart, who plays basketball for the Oklahoma State Cowboys, was criticized for pushing a fan who called him – surprise, surprise – a nigger. I’ve got to say, I’m never one to encourage physical altercations, but “nigger” is a fighting word, plain and simple. If you are Black, if and when you hear it, you WILL be taken to another level and all bets will be off. So, I freely admit that I do not fault Marcus Smart for reacting the way that he did. He will now have to face consequences and criticism for his actions, but at the time, he did what he felt needed to be done. *tsk tsk* me if you want, but I can respect that and I can relate to it, too. Had I been strong enough to fight Vernon back in the day, we’d have tussled. Trust and believe.
Hours after the Balotelli incident occurred, there is now some question about whether the taunts were really the driving force behind his emotional outburst. But regardless of whether the whole situation really brought a grown man to tears, why would the Napoli fans think it was okay to hurl racial epithets at someone anyway? People deriding your differences instead of celebrating them are hurtful, especially when your differences center on your identity. One cannot change being black, nor hide it (in most cases), and it’s particularly frustrating when people hate you for things beyond your control. As such, racial epithets can cut like a knife. They can break you down, and frustrate you enough to make you cry… or fight. I get it, and 7-year-old me gets it, and I need for you to get it, too.
Dear White People (and others):
If you don’t want to face any potential repercussions, physical or otherwise, that you may experience as a result of using then n-word, then simply remove it from your vocabulary. It’s never okay to use it. Not even as a “joke”, not even in the heat of the moment, not even amongst friends, not even ever. The “why” is irrelevant, please just don’t use it because we said so.
People: Black folk, White folk, and other folk, please remember that words hurt. Use your mouth to speak LIFE to each other, not to kill, steal, or destroy the self-worth of another human being. Know that a word – ONE WORD – can reduce a grown man to tears. And also know that if you use a (certain) word with the wrong person, it can also get your ass beat. Take heed and govern yourselves accordingly. Please. Life is just too short. Let’s be nice to each other while we’re here.