The first time I ever heard the n-word, I was in Charlottesville, Virginia. I was nine, walking with my mother and stepfather. Two kids ran past. One called the other a word I’d never heard growing up in Washington, D.C., despite having classmates and friends of multiple races.
My mother pressed her lips into a thin line, then said, “I hate that word.”
My stepfather agreed.
I asked, “What word?”
My mother told me the word. I asked, “What does it mean?”
My mom stopped cold. “You don’t know what it means?” Then she turned to my stepfather, and delightedly echoed, “She doesn’t know that word! She doesn’t know what it means!”
They reveled in happy astonishment while I repeatedly asked, “But what does it mean?! WHAT DOES IT MEAN?”
Mom finally explained. The word was evil, she said. It was a racial slur, weaponized, used against Black Americans, and it carried with it the whole ugly history of slavery. The n-word is charged with the white assumption of racial superiority, backed by decades violence and Jim Crow laws. The n-word, when it passes white lips, carries the memories of past lynchings and promises future violence if the assumption of white supremacy is challenged.
Well, maybe that last part isn’t exactly what Mom said. Maybe that’s just what I wish she’d said, or what I would tell any white kid who asked today.
Mom told me it was evil and demeaning and I was never to use it ever. She left out the part about her family’s culpability – our family’s culpability – in the n-word, in slavery, in Jim Crow, and the whole tragic history of Black America.
My mother, who loved to tell stories, stayed silent.
It wasn’t until I was in Junior High, back in Washington, D.C., that I learned more. My mother’s mother was on her way for a rare visit. Before her arrival, Mom sat my younger sister and me down for a chat.
“It’s probably best if you don’t bring any of your friends – or boyfriends – home while Grammie is here,” she told us.
“Why?” we asked.
Mom was usually pretty direct. That day, though, she hedged. “Because, well, she’s old, and she’s from a different time, and Grammie’s just not very nice to certain people.”
My sister and I gave my mother matching we-don’t-know-what-the-hell-you’re-talking-about stares.
Mom floundered on. “They grew up in the south. With old-fashioned ideas. About white people. And black people. And how they shouldn’t mix.”
I said, “What? But – half my friends are black. My boyfriend is black!”
Mom winced. “I know. But just don’t say anything about it while she’s here.”
Future Lawyer Sister said, “That’s wrong.”
Mom said, “I know, but she’s old, and you aren’t going to change her mind.” She left my sister and I staring at each other.
Future Lawyer Sister said, “I can’t believe this.”
Neither could I. Our mother, a loud, proud “liberated woman” was usually a fighter, whether with a grocery clerk who overcharged her or witnesses trying to leave the scene of a hit-and-run accident.
Yet Mom said nothing when her mother told us how awful it was that our cousin was dating a black man and went on about how said cousin would of course be cut out of her will.
We said nothing, either. We were good hostesses, fetching, carrying, and whitewashing our school stories while our grandmother visited.
When she left, I noticed my mother wearing a particularly huge and hideous ring. I asked about the weird combination of tiny pearls and sapphires on a giant silver leaf.
Mom said, “It’s a family ring. Those little pearls were brought up out of the river by slaves on the plantation.”
“We had SLAVES? Never tell my friends!” I shrieked, and fled the room.
My mother died a year later. Her mother followed six months after that.
Future Lawyer Sister inherited the hideous family ring. She melted it down and locked the pearls away.
I inherited an antique desk from my grandmother– the one that was supposed to go to my cousin. I only got it because my cousin was braver and louder than I was. Brave Cousin told my racist grandmother where she could shove her desk and married her black boyfriend.
Despite achieving it through dishonesty, I found the desk beautiful when it first arrived. Supposedly it had a secret compartment, dating back to the French Revolution. (My siblings and I failed to find it.) But as I learned more about American history and my family’s own history, I realized they were able to afford antiques and sapphires because of slavery. My maternal ancestors were big proponents of slavery. Huge.
I have thrice great-grand uncle who was a goddamned general in the Confederacy.
Ironically, that general was also Cherokee. My racist grandmother was registered on the Dawes rolls as Cherokee and actually received checks from the Bureau of Indian affairs. She cashed them at lunch, though, when none of her friends would see them and learn her secret.
I guess her friends were also racists. Or maybe, like me, they just stayed silent during Grammie’s racist rants.
Which, in the end, yields the same results as racism.
Our white silence enables white supremacy.
You know what the United States gave Black America instead of an apology and reparations after the Civil War?
Silence. We never admitted guilt. We never said we were sorry. We never tried to make it right.
Do you know what we did when the south revived their confederate flags and instituted their Jim Crow laws?
Nothing. States rights, you know. Not our business.
And what were we white people doing last year, when Trump was spouting his racist rhetoric and bringing white supremacists into his campaign?
Probably the same thing my sister and I did the last time we saw our racist great-Aunt. She drawled bullshit like, “Now a white woman with a black man? That is something I just can’t tolerate!” We shared an eye roll with our cousins and stayed silent.
Because the racist are old, right? And an unpleasant confrontation serves no purpose, right? As my mother said, we can’t change them, and anyway, they’re all going to die out soon, right?
Wrong. Did you not see all the fresh young faces, lit by torches in Charlottesville?
Maybe you’re thinking. “These white supremacists are Trump’s fault, not mine. I voted for Hillary, or Jill, or the fucking idiot who doesn’t even know where Aleppo is.”
Wrong again, my fellow white people. They are OUR fault. Every time we stayed silent, or laughed politely, ignoring ignorance and racism because we tried to be good hostesses, or good employees, we encouraged them. We gave them tacit permission to continue.
Our silence emboldens white supremacists like darkness emboldens roaches.
So we must be loud. We must call out racism and ignorance wherever we see it, no matter how awkward it makes family dinners. Consider it a point of pride to get cut out of racist uncle Ralph’s will. Protest those bastards wherever you see them and their swastikas. If they hit you, hit back. Report them to their employers, their coworkers, and their parents. Insist your elected representatives denounce them. Shame anyone and everyone who refuses to call those white supremacists exactly what they are: Nazis.
Scream loudly, and spotlight every single one of those little fuckers.
We might not change their minds.
But we must make it clear they have no place in the light.
If you are as upset about Charlottesville as I am and want to donate or support, Sara Benincasa has a great post with suggestions and links.