Dear Elderly White People: Dropping the N-Bomb Is Always a Bad Idea
People who aren’t Black must leave the slur alone — full stop — from the cradle to the casket
One of my mom’s friends is an elderly White woman in her eighties; they met at a Southern Baptist church we attended in the late ’90s. Let’s call her Ms. Rose.
A couple of years ago, Ms. Rose came over for Thanksgiving dinner, as she occasionally did. She was politically aware, and we didn’t shy away from talking about politics and racism at the dinner table. But during this particular dinner, our octogenarian guest got a little too comfortable. At one point, she told me her parents were racist. Although she didn’t use the word “racist” outright, perhaps struggling the way some White people do to describe their relatives that way, her point was clear.
Another White person who thought they were different from the rest and incapable of making racist statements; I’d heard that narrative time and time again.
Ms. Rose told me when she was young, she had a budding friendship with a Black child; her parents didn’t approve. At that moment, my mother’s guest didn’t realize she was committing one of my biggest pet peeves — a White person rehashing accounts of racism to me — but I allowed her to continue. Despite this childhood ordeal with her parents, Ms. Rose assured me that she wasn’t like them at all. Another White person who thought they were different from the rest and incapable of making racist statements; I’d heard that narrative time and time again.
But then Ms. Rose added more gasoline to the fire: She said she had never used the N-word in her life. And used the actual N-word entirely, with every inglorious letter. My mom missed the entire exchange because she was in the kitchen — but I heard our guest clearly, as did my partner, who is White.
I know that Ms. Rose didn’t say the N-word to harm me intentionally. She didn’t necessarily realize that using the N-word in any way, shape, form, or context counts as offensive to me. Despite that, I couldn’t let it go. I don’t want the word spoken in my presence — and especially by an elderly White woman in my mother’s home. I had already said the grace for the meal, and I certainly didn’t leave any grace for the N-word.
So, I didn’t give her a pass. I confronted Ms. Rose head-on. I told her directly, “I can’t hear the N-word with all its letters. The naked N-word is indecent exposure.” She said nothing to my point and glossed over it entirely, and the conversation moved to safer political topics.
When dinner was over, I hugged her goodbye. But later, I wondered how my mom would have reacted had she been at the table. (I still haven’t told her what Ms. Rose said — yet.) I also wondered why my partner said nothing.(I still haven’t challenged him on his silence — yet.) I thought about how my dad would have reacted had he been alive and at the table. He told me the N-word is always a fighting word. Should I have gotten more irate?
I’ve always felt the pressure as a Black person to check people when they say racist things to my face, but I’m not always ready to fire back at every racist word they say. Even though she said it without malicious intent, Ms. Rose put me in an awkward position where I was forced to respond to a vile and violent word.
One of the dangerous privileges of Whiteness is its focus on intent rather than impact. Those who benefit from Whiteness think that honest intention trumps the actual effects of their words and actions. It doesn’t. They can be willfully ignorant of the violence they have the potential to wield at any moment. In every encounter with a White person, I’m worried about the possibility they could say something horrendously offensive.
Why is it that some White people think they can defang the N-word so easily? Why do they easily use it to make tone-deaf comparisons to unrelated issues and causes? Whiteness has rubbed the Black experience raw every which way — then claims Black people are too sensitive when, in reality, Whiteness is callous and dangerous.
It might sound obvious, but let me say it as carefully and explicitly as I can: People who aren’t Black must leave the N-word alone. Full stop. Regardless of their goals, regardless of what they claim they feel in their hearts, to toss around a word that holds the weight of centuries of denigration is simply an act of disrespect.