Up Close and Personal with the N-Word
Yesterday Americans celebrated the Fourth of July with food, fun, and fireworks. But for Paula Deen, the rockets, missiles, and cherry bombs, were set off over two weeks ago when word got out that she had admitted to using the N-word. That confession catapulted her into the hall of shame, where she now holds court with Michael Richards (Kramer in Seinfeld), Mel Gibson, and Don Imus. Hey, wait a minute. Shouldn’t a host of African-American rappers and celebrities be in the mix as well? What’s going on here? According to street rules, ramifications for using the N-Word are determined by the hue of a person’s skin. If you’re white, using the N-Word just ain’t right, and if you’re black, when using the N-word you get a lot of slack. Is it fair that black people get to use the N-Word with impunity, but if a non-black person spews the wretched word, they’re banished to the lowest echelon of society? Based on everything I’ve read and heard, the jury’s still out. But personally, I feel the word is atrocious no matter who says it.
My first experience with the N-Word took place when I was fourteen-years-old, shortly before my mother passed away. I had been accepted into Lowell High School in San Francisco. It’s a prestigious high school with a racially mixed student population. My best friend had also been given admittance and we were ecstatic. My elation quickly dissipated when I happened to look at the back of the envelope that contained by acceptance letter. I rubbed my eyes not believing what I had seen. There scribbled on the back of the envelope was the N-Word. The first thing that crossed my mind was how did they know I was black? Of course they’d know. Whoever had written the ugly word had access to student records and how many white, Asian, Indian, or Hispanic girls are named Alretha? The culprit had surmised correctly that I’m black, but had incorrectly deemed me to be the N-Word!
I held the envelope in my trembling hands wondering if I should alert the admissions office. I thought about telling my mother, but she wasn’t well and I didn’t want to upset her. At that moment, I didn’t even want to attend the school. It was obvious to me that I wasn’t wanted. Sure, I shouldn’t have concluded that the entire school didn’t want me because of the actions of one idiot, but at fourteen, I was hard pressed to come up with any other conclusion. All I could see was a bunch of people wearing white hoods and carrying torches waiting for my arrival.
My second encounter with the nefarious N-Word came many years later. It happened while I was at dinner with my best friend at the time and her parents. They had come to see a play I was in and we were all still abuzz with excitement over the performances. I was just about to bite into my steak when my friend’s elderly white father asked, “What kind of ‘N’ is juror number two?” When his words fell on my ears, I thought I was going to throw up. I shook my head, thinking that I had misheard him. Did he just ask me what kind of “N” is juror number two? And he used the entire word. It flowed out of his mouth effortlessly. And it was apparent to me that he had used this word before. I shot my girlfriend an incredulous look wondering how many times she had used the “N” word behind my back. I sat there wondering what to do. Do I scream, go off on him, and put him on blast? Do I storm out of the restaurant? Was my girlfriend’s father a racist or was he just an old man stuck in a time warp—not realizing that it was not politically correct to refer to an African-American person as an “N"? Not only was it not politically correct, but it was despicable, particularly so, because I wasn’t just an African American woman breaking bread with him, but I was his only daughter’s friend!
Not wanting to cause a scene, I sat there quietly and picked over my food. You could cut the tension with a hatchet. My eyes shifted from the offender to my girlfriend, to her mother. I felt like I had been betrayed. As soon as we were done, I gave them a perfunctory hug and goodbye and bolted. A few days later I spoke to my girlfriend about it and she apologized and chalked his “faux pas” up to senility. It took me awhile to get over it, and our friendship was never the same and ended a few years after that unfortunate experience.
So, you see, the N-Word is poisonous, no matter who uses it. With only six letters, it’s not one of the longest words in the English language, but its horrendous history has far-reaching implications and that alone should be enough to keep all of us, black, white, purple, or red, from using it.