Nigger-rigging and Niggers in a Polite Culture

We verged prior to entering,

and we do more so

now

than we first encountered

each other.

We entered halls of a pristine nature

swept by dark hands, etched and cracked

by labor.

By legs that ached or arched higher

than the other.

We entered inequitably–

and we exited maybe more or less so.

Maybe luck or physical exertion may win

a struggle or two against History

and present Debts. But–

Chances are

unspeakable,

unthinkable

to Choice.

Despite Our

history

of encounter

and our exits.

~”Untitled”

Beginning Rumination on “Nigger Stories”

This past weekend, I attended a close college friend’s wedding. This marks my third straight-identified college friend’s marriage ceremony that I have attended, and I believe out of this group of friends, this was the fifth marriage overall.

It was a grand occasion, and I was happy I could attend with my partner. I do not deny the beauty and detail in flower arrangements, the feastings, and the social reunions that occur. Such weddings so far, however, are a complex mix of emotions for me.

My friends’ weddings display a reality of political and social difference for me. In a space that is emotionally coded as happy, loving, and celebratory, I cannot help but experience kept feelings quietly brewing under smiles and hugs—ones that I have politely siphoned off somewhere near the left of my cortex and at the base of my throat.

For me, weddings often display the products of accumulated wealth, earned and unearned. From the details of silverware choice, napkin arrangement, hors d’oeuvre, to the V-neck lines and wines, I sense a kind of pleasure in my momentary experience of the grand consumption; a kind of longing and desire for both a personal and collective access to the material culture of it all; and also a kind of anger at the silence around the inequities, either known or unknown to those present.

My straight-identified friends’ weddings also represent a ceremonial moment where traditions of past meets its reproduction into the future. Not saying that my friends have gone into the marriage institution lightly, but when my friends, who are now doctors and lawyers, enter into traditional partnerships with men of a certain status (white, heterosexual, and middle-class at least), I cannot help but think of the exclusive political structures and identifications that will most likely remain intact.

Admittedly, I write this piece with hesitation. It has taken me quite some time to sit down and write. But it is because of a social incident that occurred at the wedding, one that I have come to categorize as a personal “nigger story,” that I finally pen this piece.

“Nigger Stories” of Past

“Nigger stories” are a collection of pain for my family, and for a particular group of persons in our country. The stories not only encompass pain but also a kind of archive of social interactions, statements, moments in which a person or persons are effectively stripped of the category human although arguably, they began outside the category when named “black” centuries ago. Something internally happens to the one referred to as “nigger.” Some recognize a kind of misnaming—a kind of awareness of another’s perception of self. No matter what, a reduction occurs and it was/is dangerous.

For me “nigger stories” are part of a larger repertoire of stories my mother and father would share about the history of black folk in America. I feel that the general function of all the stories were either to instill a sense of pride of survival and perseverance through obstacles, but also to instill a sense of appreciation of what our family did have. Both my parents grew up in large families. My mother, the oldest of six, became a teacher. My father, the second oldest of eight, grew up to work a string of jobs. For the longest of time though he was in print work. I never exactly knew what printing meant as a profession, but I know that he worked as a printer for a number of years, often coming home with splotches of blue and black ink on his hands and clothes.

From my mother, I heard more stories about slavery and freed peoples post-Civil War. Maybe as a teacher, she wanted her black children, blood born and those she schooled, to know their history and the structural politics and disadvantages within black life. My mother was particularly keen on teaching the inventions of black people. For the longest of time, my child-mind believed George Washington Carver made the computer, the microwave, cement, and paper out of peanuts. I would sometimes wonder through the day how a peanut, something so tiny and edible, could become made into a machine. The wonderment was a joy, and I definitely wanted to do something creative with my energy and be a part of the wonder of the world.

From my father, I heard more personal stories of how race in America operated within his own life. I have known my father to have a series of personal narratives that he has readily available to tell, like a little story book in the back of his pocket. The stories he shared about race sometimes ignited a sense of indignation like my mother’s, but sometimes they also invoked a sense of disbelief because they sounded too cruel to be true. My father, a mixed-race man of black and Japanese descent, growing up in 1950s and 1960s America, often told his kids of how he had to endure the racial epithets of “jap” in black neighborhoods and “nigger” in white ones. I would often imagine my father as a little boy struggling to find a physical place where we would not be named at all when I was younger. I do not think my father ever did.

One of his stories stands out most to me now because of its linkage between my dad’s experience as a person of color and myself. When my dad worked at a printing company one of the machines at the time had stopped working. My dad in an exasperated tone recounted that a white woman, a co-worker, casually mentioned to my dad and others around at the time that “we should nigger-rig it.” My dad angered during this telling. My dad said that he went to their supervisor about the comment only to have the white woman later come back angry at him stating, “If you have a problem with what I say, you should just say it to my face.” I do not remember what my father did after that moment. He may have stayed silent. I do know that he left that company probably not too long after the incident.

Stories like this one—“nigger stories”—are ones told of white aggression, white hatred, and white violence (physical, verbal, and emotional). These stories I did not want to believe in. I wanted to believe in the fairy tales my dad would recount to me before bedtime as a little girl—ones of bears with porridge and pigs in brick houses—or imaginings of a peanut turning into a computer. I wanted to think of possibilities, not pain.

“Nigger stories” were the ones I wanted to reject because it painted the world as unfair and hostile. I did not want to believe my parents’ personal stories of racism unless it was told in the context of the past—meaning  any time prior the “successful completion” of the Civil Rights Movement. Thus, any story prior to say 1970, my young mind could make room for as truth since that was how schools taught racism—as a past truth—a truth that no longer existed because our people—black folk—struggled and our country finally granted freedom and equality for all.

Maybe to my child-mind, the white people near signs of “Whites only” in text books or on TV either died because they were old or somehow just turned nice. I did not understand the process of how feelings and spaces of exclusion suddenly turned open to all. Maybe that is how American myth-making works? That explanatory gap was never quite fleshed out to me. I had to make up my own vision of how “progress” and “change” occurred in the political and social fabrics of our society. As a little girl, I envisioned polite white people which I would later in high school call my color-blind approach to “all human beings.” Through this approach, I painted the world as an okay place, a fair place to enter and enjoy.

A “Nigger Story” of Present

I rarely hear the word nigger in its white utterance. Unlike my father and my mother, I did not have to hear the word that often. My mother disliked hearing the word so much, she did not want her kids even saying the re-appropriated and reimagined form—the familial and black use of the word “nigga.” Nigga was a different dirty word. Unlike the cuss words “fuck” and “shit” which my parents said around us more than they probably imagined, “nigga” was usually expressed in moments of anger. For instance, I would not hear my mother say “nigga” unless she was fed up with someone or something—like her saying the phrase “Nigga please” or “Nigga, get it together.” My brothers, however, would say “nigga” to friends in the amiable way when my mother was not around. I chose not to say any iteration because I found the root word imbued with a sense of power and pain I was too scared to touch.

I have only had one or two points in my life where I have heard the word referred to me personally. Once, my first girlfriend’s best friend referred to me as a “NIGGER” in all caps in a live journal post since her friend began to like me and not just her. My girlfriend at the time told me that I should not take the incident seriously since her friend was just spewing her family’s bigotry out of anger. At the time I did not care because I was too focused on being chosen and desired by a girl that I liked. The other moment occurred when I was walking from a public transit station to an internship. A homeless white man walked behind me uttering all kinds of obscenities. The word nigger left his lips a few times. I quickly sped up my pace because I did not know what the man was up to. I chalked up the experience to not a matter of race, but one of mental health access. Maybe I was being too polite with this reading of the event.

My most recent “nigger story” I am most hesitant to scribe about because it occurred in such an intimate and personal way—a kind of cutting pain way that shoots deep within your body. So deeply that the memory makes you question if bridges between friends are perhaps not as structurally intact as you would like. The experience I find shaking and I find myself feeling not just anger but also fear at the potential loss that can occur because of my social and political experience.

This “nigger” utterance was not hushed, quiet. It was not abbreviated to the “n-word” or stated in the transformed way of “nigga.” It was an old way of saying it where you hear the stress most at the end, in the “rrrrr” of the word’s sound. The sound somehow strikes at the political memorials my mother and father built within about black folk and struggle.

The word left multiple times from the lips of a white man–a smart, white man in the oil business in the south of the country–a straight white man who is a husband in our friend group. Maybe that is why I find it so intimate and personal because the man is now a part of the network and relationships we built within our college days.

The exchange happened at my close college friend’s wedding reception. After a dance, I returned to the dinner table with my partner, and I noticed the husbands minus the new groom talking about the republican presidential candidates. I found the moment a kind of social study for me, like an opportunity to peer into the window of conservative political thinking of white heterosexual middle-class men.

In the candlelight glow of the evening and by bouquet centerpieces, I felt their heated discussion of how to best handle the national debt. I wanted to interject not on how to best handle the national debt but attempt to center the discussion on marginalized communities and the Black Lives Matter movement. I felt my desire to interject would break a polite barrier between all parties present because I want people to think about inequality and privilege within our own lives.

Before I interjected, my friends returned and discouraged the husbands from talking about politics. One of my friends said it was not fun and they expressed concern if they were being nice to each other. I think my friends were afraid of the husbands not getting along with one another. For me, I saw it as an opportunity to engage political difference and a moment to offer another alternative to the political scheme of ordering the world—one that seeks equal outcomes and opportunities for all people.

Since my friends, the “wives,” returned, the men left. I headed outside the reception towards the restroom and noticed that the husbands banded together again to continue their political discussion uninhibited. I laughed to myself because I saw this as a way to get away from their wives and continue on discreetly. I became excited because I wanted to join them and talk with them as well. It is only so often that I get to hang out with straight white men with a kind of economic power I sometimes desire. I quickly joined them near the open bar and jokingly told them to go check-in with their wives since they were worried about them not knowing how to play nice together. They laughed and I told them that I differ from them because I think people should talk about politics, and that people can have heated debates and still be friends. Part of my engagement stems from my problematizing of “politeness” as a cultural mechanism to enforce silence around issues of power. Politeness as civility means certain topics do not get voiced. Certain mannerisms and tonalities such as increased voice or hand gestures gets termed “threatening” or “too angry.” And those that engage in this “impoliteness” do not get listened to; their messages gets lost in the fray of an “uncivil” style of discourse and engagement.

I entered the conversation amidst talks of Russian president Vladimir Putin and Syria. I told them I enjoyed the recent 60 Minutes interview with Putin because I heard a perspective on American culture from an outsider’s point of view and because he mentioned that Ferguson was representative of America’s imperfect democracy. My opinion led one husband to ask me if I were communist (implied here to mean terrible) and asked if I wanted Putin to run the world. Of course, I do not want one man running the world. One husband re-interpreted my comment to the perplexed one, rephrasing it for him to mean “she just liked hearing about America from a foreigner’s perspective” but then later added that “I mean don’t get me wrong. I think America is the best. I believe in American exceptionalism.”

For me American exceptionalism is not separated from histories of genocide, enslavement, and labor made cheap. It is a history that we would rather not teach to our children in the country if we are to instill patriotism to future generations. To disrupt the logic of “America the Great” I shared with each of them that I wanted to talk about politics because I think all of us have a unique view of the world and that politics cannot always be captured by the common split of democrats/republicans. I shared with them that I am sometimes off the traditional political scheme and advocate a more radical politics. One husband asked me how, and I said that I often think democrats and republicans both have very neoliberal and racist policies towards marginal communities. Before I could warrant my statement, the perplexed husband quickly interrupted and said “What if I said racism is bullshit?” I quietly thought, “Sure, ok.” He then recounted, “I heard the other day Obama said I couldn’t say the word “nigger.”

(::insert record screech:: Did he really just say that? Yes, yes he did.)

My heart beat quickened at the blatant statement. I experienced a sense of confusion, shock, and restrained anger. The other two husbands definitely took a noticeable step back. He noticed their discomfort and soon called them out saying, “Oh no, don’t run away. It’s okay. I just said the word ‘nigger’. There is nothing wrong with it.” He smiled and looked at me and brushed my arm and said “We ran them away.”

I told him that he could he say the word in certain contexts that could be justifiable–like maybe talking about historic events or maybe reading an old document. He quickly “corrected” me and said that he could say “nigger” because that is what “they call themselves.” He asked, “You mean to tell me, they can use that word, and not me?” I told him that he is white and that word has a historic and present day offense to it coming from him. He didn’t even say it in the familial, black way. I can’t think of any moment in my experience in which a black person has referred to another as “nigger” where the -er is emphasized and not dropped for the -a.

My partner, a white woman, entered the conversation and tried to explain to him. She shared that the word was said while black people were lynched. The perplexed one said that the word is only offensive because someone takes it to mean it that way. He added that he had plenty of black friends and that he knew black people well because he drove “them” to the city where “their mommas” have sat him down and cooked him “fried chicken.” He even tried to justify the use by noting that today we have progressed in the country. My partner rebutted that just because our country has a half-black/half-white president does not mean racism does not exist. Unfortunately, the perplexed husband may have listened to one too many conservative talk-radio shows and/or Fox News segments. He could only say to that point that Obama was “more Muslim than Christian.”

I knew that there was very little hope of trying to get him to understand. I even relayed to him that I think the word hurts personally. At that point, his wife returned and tried to take him away, but he rebuffed her attempts and wanted to keep talking. She encouraged him to listen to me about how the word is hurtful, but he could only retort that he did not call me one and that “black people all feel the same way about us–that we are all crackers.” I looked at him confusedly on purpose and pointed to myself and my partner and said that couldn’t be true since we have a close, intimate relationship with one another.

It did not click with him, and I told him that we are just going to have to agree to disagree. He did not want to accept my bowing out. I think he wanted to convince me of his feelings even though he demanded several times to explain to him why it was hurtful and that he was listening. I told him that he could say it, but in certain contexts it may get him in trouble. He then shared that he would shoot someone if they tried to hurt him for saying it.

I do not know why, but after telling him that we just disagreed, I gave him a light hug. Maybe to signify the finality of our exchange but maybe as a last effort to communicate to him that I meant well. By that time, he definitely had his share of alcohol and his wife was very embarrassed at trying to get him to leave with the others at the reception. After asking if I wanted to continue at the hotel, I told him that we had to return to go say goodbye to the bride and groom. I told him that he could read plenty of blogs and scholarly texts on why words get appropriated to mean something entirely different for a marginalized community. I mentioned queer to him as example. I doubt he soaked it in. My partner and I returned to the reception and I immediately had to breakdown and cry to her because I had withheld my pain that whole time. Maybe out of politeness. Maybe because the exchange was not worth showing my emotion for. Maybe I was just trying to maintain a cool logic through it all. Whatever the reason, withholding the pain definitely wrecked me.

Being an Ally By Overcoming Politeness

As I mentioned before, this piece has been hard to write. Fear of expression is real. In some ways I feel anger at my friends for not calling him out then and there, like I was left to defend myself. I have the memory of one of the husbands repeatedly saying the word nigger while the others silently watched, and I have the memory of my friends walking away from it all.

These situations are never easy to navigate, but I do wish my friends, especially my white ones, could call out a racist statement when it is uttered. Of course, it was a wedding reception and that space is already coded as a polite one–no ill remarks or scenes should be made. Yet remaining silent in the name of “politeness” seems to be a privilege in this instance. To be “polite” and silent meant letting racism, even blatant expressions of it, go unquestioned.

I wanted my friends to be my allies in that moment and in future instances. It means I want them to be able to call out a wrong, but in order to be able to, they must see it. I have always been of a radical politic within this group of friends ever since we forged our friendships in college. I know my friends and I are on different social and political trajectories in life, and we may never use the same language and knowledge base to talk about the world we live within.

I do, however, want my friends to step up and question each other and those that are most intimate with us. That may mean becoming uncomfortable and taking risks in reshaping how we see the world and the politics that shape our physical and social arrangements within our lives. It might mean that my friends push themselves and those closest to them to begin building an understanding of economic and social inequity historically and currently within our country. It may mean that that all of us must begin talking about and taking issues of difference and power seriously. It will definitely mean we forgo politeness to talk about hierarchy and power amongst one another despite our fear, despite the possibility of loss.

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