The N Word

The other day I came across a piece of writing in the one place where one can always expect to find insightful and thought-provoking literature – the bathroom stall. Scribbled with a steady hand and an ink pen, it read,

Nigger in the white house, pot in the rose garden.

Obviously, I had no clue who wrote it. Nor did I elaborate long on the intent of the author. The words, especially that incendiary first one, offended me. So I approached a maintenance worker and asked him if he’d swiftly scrub it away. I didn’t want the words to begin making their rounds around the floor and perhaps reach the ears of the black folks I work with. Living and working in a predominantly WASP-y part of the country, I can count on my two hands and a foot, with some toes left over, the number of African American males I rub shoulders with on a daily basis. The kind of stuff scrawled on that wall could lead to all sorts of negative consequences if people started chewing on it and spewing their opinions.

And then a thought hit me. Am I being offensive by being offended? Who am I to take it upon myself to be offended on behalf of African Americans? Would black men, the ones I work next to and attend classes alongside, few though they may be, find me offensive?

Many years ago, I spent a week with a black friend from North Dakota, working at an inner-city mission in Chicago. During the dog days of summer, amidst the smog and humidity, we worked alongside each other, and shoulder to shoulder with men from the community, clearing away brush and garbage from a plot of land next to a childcare facility so a playground could be built. Then, with the other church members, we erected a tent and worshipped of an evening, handing out free water, cookies, and bibles to those who wandered in. In many ways, it was a humbling experience. I had grown up around family members not afraid to throw The N Word around in ways not meant to be edifying. Some of them still use the word with nary a second thought. But something about it always rubbed me the wrong way; made the hairs of my neck bristle with disgust and anger. So I sought out those that others found offensive and befriended them. Perhaps just for spite, though I never thought of it in that way; I attended a racially mixed high school just south of the south side of Chicago, so friends came in many colors. And I never saw myself as being accommodating for the sake of my own peace of mind – attempting in some misguided way to assuage the guilt of my ancestors.

Until one evening during that trip to Chicago.

Curt and I decided to sneak out of the city and visit Willow Creek, the church that put the Mega in megachurch. Max Lucado was speaking and we couldn’t pass up the chance to bask in his inspirational glow. We arrived late and walked into a large auditorium packed with people, most of them very white. I looked around and found a row filled with black people, save for two empty seats, and headed that direction. We made quite a scene, scooting our way down the row, pardoning ourselves, and settling into the open seats. We received more than a few disgruntled looks, but this was church so our rudeness got brushed aside and the show went on. Later, as we ate salad and pizza in the church’s posh cafeteria, Curt asked me why I chose to sit where I did instead of in the overflow seating just outside the sanctuary. Never one to think before I speak, I told him I chose that spot because I wanted him to feel comfortable.

His look still haunts me. He told me, in a voice deepened by emotions I’ll never comprehend, never to do that again. In that moment, all my juvenile efforts on behalf of “racial reconciliation” were exposed as a sham. We stared at our food for a long time. I’d wounded a friend, and my heart bled true for the first time.

And then we talked again. Acknowledging the landmines and the risks involved, we slowly tiptoed into the field and laid some things bare. That evening marks the beginning of a long conversation I’ve engaged in regarding my place, as a white man steeped in all that comes with being white, in a world where there are others who experience life from a different angle, and have voices that use the same words but lend them an altogether different meaning. Pain is universal, but it comes with many nuances and in myriad shades of color that I’ve never taken the time to see before. It is a frightening conversation, but a necessary one, as Bruce A. Jacobs points out in his book Race Manners for the 21st Century: Navigating the Minefield Between Black and White Americans in an Age of Fear:

There are leaps to be made, conversational licks to be taken. What has so many well-intentioned white and black people either stammering or seething is the half-witted notion that we cannot afford to be racially in error, cannot afford to be corrected, cannot abide conflict or argument and still sustain a healthy coexistive relationship.

So once conversation has been sufficiently stifled – as it has today by public Rage Talk and private eye-rolling – there is really only one way through; what I call “engagement.” You have to risk being taken for a judgmental white racist or an apologist for black dysfunction. Maybe that’s what you actually are. Maybe you deserve to have it flung back in your face. Perhaps you need a good rocking and rolling, a healthy little bang of criticism. Or maybe, the other party should not be spared what you hold clenched in your fist. Perhaps somebody needs to be called out. And perhaps, when all is said and done, everyone survives . . .

The reality is inescapable: most of the time, you simply cannot know in advance whether you will end up being right or wrong. You cannot know whether you will improve the prospects for friendship or make an enemy. There are too many surprises hidden within racial dialogue. And so the only thing to do is try, and to accept the risks – of hard feelings, of racial blunders – as being the cost of a process that , in the long run, draws us closer together.

Now, a decade and a half later, I am about to cast my vote for a black man. Why? Because I feel it’s time to give a black man a shot? Because doing so will make me feel like I’ve made some progress? I don’t believe so. I’m casting my vote for Barack Obama because I feel he’s the right man, at this moment in time, to bring about the sort of change we need in America. He doesn’t need my vote because he’s black. He needs my vote because his ideas are becoming ideas I can embrace. I can’t spell it out for you as articulately as some have. This road is unfamiliar to me, and I’ll admit it often feels unsafe. But safety hasn’t been good to me. So with my vote, I’m giving Barack Obama a chance.

And I’m wondering if I should have left the graffiti on the wall . . .

[photo credit]


22 thoughts on “The N Word

  1. Good post!
    I had an interesting conversation with an older black man in the voting line last week (was part of my last post, infact). While I do support Barack Obama, it isn’t because he’s black or half black, or from Chicago, or likes Arugula, etc. It’s because he’s the best chance we have of getting this country back on track. And yeah, he does represent a landmark choice for many Black Americans, who finally get the chance to vote for someone who even partially represents them, and I think that’s beautiful. I told the man in line with me that I thought the electing of Obama would go a long way towards righting many wrongs in this country. Predjudice is a big one, and it goes both ways. We are all of us predjudiced about something or someone and it’s hard to undo the hard wiring. But we have to try, because we all of us are Americans, regardless of our color or religious preference and we need to be able to accept and work with each other as equals.

  2. Fantastic post!

    I’m not even sure what my own feelings are on the subject of “the N word” these days. I was never taught not to say it (and it was never uttered in my household growing up), but somehow absorbed the cruelty and racism inherent in its use nonetheless and I get the same uncomfortable feeling when seeing or hearing it that you do. Then again, I’m a pretty big rap fan and have had to spend some times coming to terms with that same old word used in a completely different context and have even sometimes wondered as a white person whether I ought to be listening at all…

    I think the Jacobs passage you quoted is dead on…it’s tough for a lot of us who are trying to be compassionate to take the risk of offending or unintentionally insulting someone, but if no one talks or asks questions or takes those risks (on both sides of the racial divide), we’re never going to get anywhere.

  3. I think it’s always a good thing to have this kind of conversation with ourselves. It keeps us in touch with why we are really doing (or not doing) something. It’s far too easy to ignore racism, even within ourselves, by not revisiting the subject inside our heads from time to time.

    I think I would have left the graffiti. Without it, it’s easy to forget that racism lives in America.

  4. Brilliant.

    I am working on an article right now for a magazine about diversity. I making calls to sources, interviewing them each day, and I have never felt like such a white bread idiot in all my life. The very fact that this magazine exists is somehow simultaneously empowering and insulting to every one of these different groups of people, and I’m the yahoo charged with asking them contrived questions. It sucks.

    But it’s sure got me thinking….

  5. I saw the powerful title of this post in my Reader earlier today, scanned the first paragraph, and knew I needed to return to it when I could give it my full attention and digest your important words.

    Bruce A. Jacobs sounds like he’s nailed this dynamic. Great passage.

    I personally believe you did the right thing by requesting the graffiti be removed. It was ugly.

    I agree with Maggie, dammit’s “brilliant”, but I add, thought provoking, moving, brave, honest and intelligent (all within the umbrella of brilliant).

  6. Insightful, brilliant and honest. Pretty much what I expect whenever I visit.

    Race is such a charged issue, and often there is no “right” answer. as Jacobs writes, there is no way to know for certain what will offend. In those cases, it is best to speak from the heart.

    Asking to have the word removed was an act of conscience. I think you did the right thing. If only to say that you are offended. Not for the black men who might end up reading it otherwise, but for the thinking people of the world who refuse to believe that the contributions, the thoughts, and the soul of a man can so be succinctly summed up with such an ugly word.

    I want to believe we can be better than that.

  7. Brian, is your last sentence mainly rhetorical as in wondering whether you should have even broached this subject or are you serious about wondering if you should have acted on the scrawl in your workplace bathroom?

    If it were a public bathroom, like at an airport or a train station, would you have done something, would it have provoked this same response?

    I ask because I think this issue is so in need of thoughtful voices like yours. And, context matters and instructs when we see an issue and when we don’t. As in your experience with your friend. You saw one context, he saw quite another.

    Last night I watched the second part of “LBJ” on American Experience on PBS. It has a very powerful message about the dynamics of LBJ personally and the whole Civil Rights Movement. Roy Wilkins, the then head of the NAACP, was one of the contributors as well as an eye witness to LBJ’s historic Civil Rights legislation, voting rights protests and his dramatic arm twisting with George Wallace. Five days after this dramatic encounter with George Wallace, Watts in LA erupted in riots and LBJ was livid, speechless, and according to Roy Wilkins, furious that blacks weren’t grateful to him for his political progressiveness on their behalf.

    Grateful, as in he, LBJ, gave black US citizens a gift of some sort, a luxury item, instead of what was already theirs in the first place. The emphasis being on the largesse of the giver, not the original injustice.

    These are thorny thickets and it is fascinating and helpful to see history in the context of today’s election.

  8. Brian, I think we can all be offended by the offensive. I am not gay, but “faggot” offends me, I am not black, but “nigger” offends me. because it is diminishing, small minded and rude.

  9. Pat,

    I guess, in a way, I was being rhetorical. And I wonder what I would do if I were in a public restroom. I suppose it would depend where. If I were at a Wal-Mart or something, I’d probably say something to the manager. Especially if the walls were kept clean on a regular basis. But I remember going to a coffee house once where people were encouraged to write on the bathroom walls. They were made of slate, and chalk was everywhere. In a place like that, where what was written was for the purpose of prompting discussion, and all opinions are acceptable, regardless of the language or intent, then I’d probably leave it. But I’d probably add some text of my own . . .

  10. I think you did the right thing. Around here in redneck central I hear this word or the “rap” version coming out of my younger siblings in law’s and husband’s mouths and it irritates the crap out of me. We finally had to come to an understanding that that particular word is NOT appropriate in this house and will not be tolerated. We also had a very long talk about what in the world would make them think it necessary to use that word to describe someone when they wouldn’t use honky, cracker, chink, spic or any of the other distressing words out there. It made them think but time will tell… We’re still working on the “gay” thing too

  11. Like you, I grew up surrounded by people who didn’t mind using the ‘N’ word in a very derogatory manner. I always hated it, to the very core of my being, and when I developed friendships with black girls in high school, I was not allowed to bring them home as I did my white friends. It really damaged my relationship with my mother. And when I dared to date a young black man, an athlete and singer? I was run out of town. I kid you not. So, would I have allowed that filth to stay on the bathroom wall? Hell no. I wouldn’t let it stay there anymore than I would let a derogatory remark about Palin’s womanhood stay up there. I don’t like her, but filth is filth.

    Though in color I am as pale as they come, I have a number of friends who are not. And you know what? I don’t care and neither do they. We just love each other.

    Great, provocative post!

    Peace – D

  12. Brian,
    First, thank you for the link. I’m always humbled when someone links to me. Second, I awoke at 2am last Friday night to my neighbors’ voices embroiled in a rambunctious political discussion on their balcony. I was horrified by what I heard: that the only reason people are voting for Obama is because he’s black and that he’ll surely be assassinated. This then evolved into a lambasting of African-American welfare recipients, that they’re lazy and that giving them all the wealth would be the stupidest thing we could ever do. My ears bled! I couldn’t slam the window fast enough, but I think the experience of having overheard them, as well as your post, reminds me of the importance of keeping racism visible as long as it exists. We need to talk about race in this country even though we know the conversation won’t be easy. It is our moral imperative if we hope not to destroy ourselves from within.

  13. Nice work here. Sure seems like a publishable piece to me. The content has me thinking the following thoughts:

    1. I tend to roll my eyes at the black and white subject because (I used to perceive that) it wasn’t an issue in Canada.

    2. How naive was I!? I live in a white world with a Native reserve (ghetto) 20 miles away.

    3. I’m reminded to see myself in everyone around me.

    4. I will keep asking one of my colleagues to keep teaching me Yorubo at coffee break. It’s totally new to my ears and how fascinating in a cross-cultural way to have a chance to get to know a West African who lives in the heart of White Ukrainian Alberta!

  14. So hey – as a woman who had HER name on a bathroom wall a time or two, would that someone involved a janitor on my behalf….

    But seriously…
    My thanks – with every others – for your willingness to address the difficult and to put forth something that makes, well, me for one, yearn for discussion.

    What struck me was your question – rhetorical or not – about whether you were being offensive be being offended. I think that would depend on your internal dialogue. If you were genuinely offended – as flutter aptly points out – by the ignorance, by the small mindedness, by the sheer…stupidity???… of the writer, and if you wanted it removed because it was just vulgar, then that’s no different from asking them to erase pornography, or swearing, or any other type of random bigotry or slander.

    You didn’t do it “To SAVE the black man” but because you personally didn’t feel that was the forum for that kind of expression. If it was in the coffeehouse, you would have let it stay. So what does that say about you? You were removing what was offensive to you, for yourself.

    So what about the part where you didn’t want anyone else hurt by it? Ok, let’s say hypothetically that you did do it solely because you didn’t want you African American peers to be hurt. Does that make you a form of racist? Well, I suppose it does if you were also thinking hypothetically that your African American peers were incapable of processing it. But if you simply wanted it down because it was might have hurt someone’s feelings, why isn’t that ok? I’m not sure that makes you offensive. Let’s say it was about Hillary Clinton and it was the oh so cute “We don’t need more bush in the whitehouse” Would you have removed it? In the men’s room? What if it was in a mixed gender bathroom? What if it was about gays, or Muslims? Would you step in universally to have all derogatory comments scrubbed regardless of who the reader was? I think you are the type of man that would.

    Simply put – it’s only offensive if you did it with a sense of nobility and righteousness. Otherwise, it’s called being compassionate about humanity. Somewhere along the road we’ve all allowed hatred to flourish in the name of free speech. Isn’t it funny that the sheer act of wanting people to conduct themselves with a wee bit of decorum, with etiquette – specifically wanting people NOT to write nasty stuff in public buildings – makes you question your motivations?

    Ok, my response is bordering on a blog post. Apologies.

    Cool comment btw to whoever raised the point about leaving it up – just to remind people that that kind of bigotry exists.

  15. You always bring a great discussion to the table and just when I think I have a worth while comment to make I read all the other comments and get wrapped up in their words and forget my own.

    Flutter worded it superbly. How could one not be offended?

  16. This is a difficult subject to tackle. There will always be an angle, a viewpoint, an understanding that you’ve missed.

    I believe that racism continues because people believe that they are different to other people. People just need to quit defining themselves by the color of their skin. Simple right? But for many people that is how they define themselves. Black history month, black music, black tv and books? I believe that just buying into that BS shows us that we lost the battle a long time ago.

  17. I like to give considerable weight to the sentiment behind the action, regardless of whether the actual action is “good” or “bad.” Your heart and instinct were working to protect, that is what matters most.

  18. Duck of Happiness October 31, 2008 — 4:23 pm

    I think it’s fabulous of you to even consider all this. We need more people like you!

  19. wow – so many great comments about a well written piece

  20. Great post, Brian. These conversations are so important, but also so difficult to have.

    I’ve always had a lot of impatience with what I call white ignorance, which manifests itself in a lot of different ways. I’ve tried to do more of what Amanda described in her comment above…look at the intent. And to correct people gently or maybe not at all, because I’m certainly not the arbiter of anything in the world of race relations. But I do have a different point of view being a member of a multicultural family and my patience is often tested to the limit, because there’s still a lot of ignorance out there. I’m always glad to see other people discussing their experiences with race relations so thanks for this post.

    I don’t agree with you on the change thing and Obama bringing it, I think that there is no real difference between Democrats and Republicans anymore. I’m not happy that Obama said he would take public money then reneged on that when he realized he could raise so much more on his own. His health care plan wasn’t enough to make me vote for him when weighed against all his other proposed solutions, all involving grabbing more money from everyone. I voted Libertarian, even though I know they won’t win. To me it really sucks when the only candidates who are visible to the people during elections are the millionaires.

  21. anytime anything offends you on the bathroom wall, you have the right to ask for it to be removed.

    personally, I am proud that our nation elected a black man as president.

    does it make up for all the injustice here?


    black people still face discrimination and not all of them can go to washington d.c.

    but I take things a step further….

    so do fat people.

    oriental people.


    gay, lesbian and bi…



    mentally ill.

    mentally retarded.




    We have a long way to go as a nation to respect other’s without fear. We need to talk about it….it is the elephant on the table that we all see but pretend we don’t.

  22. Thank you for this thought provoking post. I found you via RiverPoet and am very glad I clicked over.

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