I can’t remember the last time someone called me a nigger, their jaw kneeling deep into their throat, because that’s what the hard R of “nigger” requires.
I remember the last time I was called a nigga—the other day, when one of my closest friends (a black woman) dragged me via text. She was down the street but I could feel her eyeroll. “Help me apply for this job,” she asked. I told her I would help her after I applied myself. Cue her sucking her teeth. “Nigga.”
This month, Destinee Wornum, a black student at Boston Latin School, came forward with an account of a classroom discussion of “Huckleberry Finn” in which a teacher called her a nigger: “Destinee Wornum’s English teacher walked from the front of the classroom and stopped at the 15-year-old’s desk,” the Boston Globereported, “and then asked: ‘What’s up my nigger?’”
This is the third time in 16 months that I’ve written about the n-word in this paper, mostly because some white people just can’t seem to stop saying it when I’m around, or won’t stop dictating its terms as if it belongs to them. In the past, I’ve talked about how much I love this word, how much it’s mine, how it feels like music and soul food. It’s the warmest word I know. There’s only one opportunity to use it: among other black people, people who see me in a way white privilege might not allow. Nigga is a two-syllable reminder that in places not meant for us, black skin can still glow.
Black identity is more than just a word, of course, but “nigger” reminds of stinging truths—police brutality, systematic oppression, generational income inequality, misogynoir. “My nigger’” is even worse. Nothing about it is friendly or earnest or safe. It’s another reminder that it’s 2016 and black deaths become hashtags and people with this skin can’t win appeals, let alone Oscars.
Wornum told the Globe that her teacher’s comment made her deeply anxious at a school where students have formally complained about staff and student prejudice several times in the past year. “I didn’t know what to say,” she said in that interview. “I was uncomfortable and embarrassed.”
I read this and queued gifs of Beyonce and the “Real Housewives” star Nene Leakes. I was ready to dispatch an arsenal of eyerolls to communicate my displeasure. I drafted drags in my mind quicker than I could type them, suggesting that if a teacher had exited out of her right mind and called me a nigger during class, I’d have to take a moment to calmly pack up my books because there’d be a thousand percent chance I’d leave that classroom in a police car.
It’s more likely, however, that I’d be stunned into silence. Wornum’s response, in the account she gave to the Globe, was effectively the same. “I honestly didn’t know how to handle it,” she said, “because it was like, how do I approach my adult teacher on a situation like this? What would that mean for my grade?”
I could make all of the digital declarations that I wanted to, but Wornum’s words got at a deeper reality. The privilege that empowers someone to use skin color to diminish you is poisonous enough to become internalized. When video surfaced of a female student in South Carolina being dragged out of her desk chair and thrown like a rag doll onto the floor in October, errant voices on my Twitter timeline asked how other black students in the class could watch without protest. To me, the answer was simple: They were teenagers who were just as black and just as afraid; they didn’t want to be next.
Sometimes good, non-racist people have a hard time understanding this. Sometimes even the best allies are quick to speak up and over, not realizing that being a member of a disenfranchised group means that you’ve been disenfranchised for generations, that there are false truths about your identity that you’ve internalized: that your ideas aren’t as valuable, your voice not as loud, your love less legitimate.
James Baldwin had a lot of thoughts about how the lies of the oppressor can be internalized. “The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you,” he wrote in a December 1962 letter to his nephew. To consciously and consistently unlearn narratives that your existence has been predicated upon is hard. The structures we as minorities are living within and without are predicated upon us not acknowledging that the wrongs we’ve endured are legitimized by lies. I can tell you from personal experience that coming to these realizations weighs on your soul.
There’s no right or wrong way for Wornum to have responded, only that the ability to pop off or clapback requires more than just feeling that you’ve been deeply slighted. If I sound exhausted it’s because I am, and this tiredness shouldn’t go unacknowledged. Living and learning and breathing and writing in institutions designed to ignore your identity takes a toll.