|Actor Jimmy Walker from Good Times, my idea for years of what being Black looked like|
Warning: this essay contains language and references some readers will find offensive.I first heard the word “nigger” at a Cub Scout day camp in upstate New York’s Catskill Mountains region. Well, surely I must’ve encountered the term somewhere before age eight, given the ubiquity of racist attitudes in America today, though by 1982, most people had enough discretion not to say that word aloud in public. The risk is too high. But my first real memory of that word is Cub Scout camp.
Members of my troop, joshing aggressively with a kid we’d never met before from another troop, answered his boisterous ribbing by calling him “nigger.” The other kid never broke his stride, so if the term offended him, it didn’t make enough of a difference to stop the goofing. I didn’t join in, not because I considered that word offensive—I didn’t even understand it—but because I never liked being on the receiving end of aggressive teasing, so I wasn’t about to dispense it.
Thing is, I never connected the word with his race. Looking back, this kid was clearly Black, but I didn’t see him that way. He didn’t resemble the very dark-skinned actors on Good Times and What’s Happening, my white suburban exposure to African Americans, so I never would’ve considered him Black. To me, he just looked that way, like any other kid would. He was just, y’know, that guy.
|Michael Eric Dyson|
For instance, I originally gave a lukewarm review to sociologist Michael Eric Dyson’s The Black Presidency, which I now regret, as Dyson’s ideas have grown on me. One stands out: white people, especially white men, have the privilege of considering ourselves not as a race, not as members of a demographic group, but as simply normal. That’s why reactionary activists see attempts to diminish racism as attacks on themselves, because white issues aren’t white issues, they’re just how things are.
Similarly, anthropologist Richard J. Perry provides a detailed examination of why race doesn’t really exist. Many members of my generation, though clearly not all, grew up believing that racism was objectionable, and racists were backsliders; but we never really understood why. That’s probably because race still exists in common discourse, and, like other bad ideas, never completely goes away once released. But Perry demonstrates how race isn’t merely a bad idea, it’s a falsehood.
Because I encountered the term “nigger” in an environment I didn’t consider hostile, in dialog clearly intended as jest, I thought it was a mild, even playful, term of personal contempt. The person whose chops you’re busting is a nigger, obviously. So, about a year later, while bantering with my friend Timmy across the street (a typically freckle-faced, ginger-haired Irish-ish kid), I called him a nigger. Timmy never paused. The adults around us did.
My mother dragged me off the street, into our living room, and explained what that word meant. I was horrified. Though my suburban upbringing involved little interaction with African American kids until middle school, I understood the idea of race from television, and the consequences of racism, at least as sanitized for mass-media consumption. Had I misused that word other times, possibly more hurtful times? I couldn’t remember, then or now.
To me, though, white privilege entails a white kid getting antsy on a suburban street, tossing the word “nigger” recklessly, because he’s never needed to think about what that word means. Did that kid at scout camp feel wounded when an all-white troop called him that? Or when one member of that troop remained passively silent, his face probably betraying he didn’t even know what that word meant?
That’s why events like we’re seeing unfold around us today bother me so much. Because it’s proof that some people just don’t care.