It happened for the first time when I was seventeen.
I was interning for a local politician in Fresh Meadows, Queens. The environment was a predominately white office perched in an affluent neighborhood. My parents were over-protective and would not let me go onto the street and hand out literature, so most of my time was spent handling office duties—and as I would learn, engaging office politics.
One day while inserting data, a young white man rehashed an event that happened at Howard Beach. Rather than give an overview of the event, he decided to recite a racially charged graffiti act verbatim. The epithet read “f*ck all you n*ggers.” After reciting these words, he looked straight into my face, seemingly searching for something that I refused to acknowledge by returning his piercing gaze.
A similar event would occur years later in an interaction with a racial psychopath I mistook for a friend. Similar to my first experience, my pseudo friend expressed outrage in the use of a racial epithet, yet took it upon herself to repeat her uncle’s use of the word n*gger. Like the previous incident, she too stared in my face as she uttered the term, a gaze I saw in my peripheral because I had refused her longing gaze. This same friend would go on to show me her white boyfriend dressed in blackface for Halloween. We have since lost touch, her face dissipated into a grudging appreciation for presenting a necessary evil to awaken my consciousness.
These particular incidents illustrate the antiracist efforts implemented by whites uncomfortable with black presence, working to transfer their discomfort onto the oppressed black body. This transfer is never painless. Rather it reflects the evil deemed necessary to maintain a fictive whiteness. The black body has historically been used a canvass for western anxiety, making the n word a common painting drawn on the black body to appease the demands of a white supremacist hierarchy.
Despite having the opposite effect, these incidents overtly functioned to distance the individual white body from their racist collective– an impossible, and disingenuous feat given the racial climate that defines America. It is this racial climate that predisposes any antiracist effort to inevitably help not hinder white supremacy.
Flash forward to this past semester. The setting is a writing course at a private university in New York City. To introduce a unit on critical queries I play Jadakiss’s “Why?” I am sure to play the clean version because as a black female on a journey to conscious, I have no place for expletives in my life let alone my classroom. Yet despite my efforts, when prompted to respond to a question in the song, a white female student stated “Why N*ggas can’t get no job?” despite the version played in class that stated “Why brothers can’t get no job?”
To which I responded “what did you say?”
She then proceeded to repeat the sentence and epithet. Every student in the class looked down. But, the worst is yet to come. When confronted about her word use she became combative and argumentative. This is the issue with the n word.
Is it an issue that white people use the n word? Yes. But this is not racism. It seems an essential component of oppression to preoccupy the oppressed with branches of racism and not the roots. Take for example the often unpleasant white and foreign businessmen that dominate black communities throughout America. Is it a problem that they are often unpleasant? Yes. Is this racist? No.
It is racist that the white and non-black foreigner monopolizes black economy—taking our money out of our communities. It is racist that the American system is designed to prevent black business ownership. Racism is the systemic action and language seen in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. It is the societal hierarchy white people observe in every aspect of western culture. Using the n word is yet another means for white people to assume their acquired hierarchy over black bodies. This student used the n word in the classroom of a black female instructor and fought for the right to use a racially offensive term–that’s racism. Bill Maher illustrated a similar dynamic in his use of the n-word Friday evening.
Bill Maher welcomed guest Senator Ben Sasse on his HBO show “Real Time” in which the pair joked about the fields of Nebraska. When invited to “work the fields” by Sasse, Maher responded “I’m a house n*gger” to a reserved laughter from his audience, to which he expressed his gratitude.
Was Maher wrong for using the n word? Yes. But this was far from the first racist comment Maher has made and won’t be the last. It seems his sexual fetish for black Women serves as a means to validate his racial insensitivity to those foolish enough to believe that having sex with blacks makes forgives their racist tendencies. The very house slaves that he references were both products and victims of the white slave masters, and it is this ignored context that composes the core issue here.
The historical trajectory of black bodies in this country is not funny. The means for initial western wealth, who received cyclical disenfranchisement in exchange for centuries of labor, is hardly a laughing matter, at least for those robbed. In using the n word, the white person induces a collective amnesia that when retrieved portrays the retriever as “living in the past” or “playing the race card.”
Blacks have yet to receive reparations or even inclusion into canonical history for providing the greatest sacrifice for this country, so it seems a fractional effort for the western world to retire an epithet used to verbally subjugate the black body.
So why can’t the word be laid to rest?
The answer is simple, it bears too much power.
Many will say that “n*gger” is “just a word” and blacks put “too much emphasis” on this word. But it was never blacks who put too much emphasis on a term foreign to their indigenous tongue. This was never our word, rather the word is conjured from white creation solely to conceptualize black denigration. Yes, it’s an issue that blacks use the word. But until the black collective maintains power in economics, media, employment and housing , they lack the ability to be racist. Furthermore, it is not the black collective who have issues getting over themselves, it is the white collective that expresses difficulty “getting over”their fictive placement on a stolen land.
The abducted African remains the foundation for western wealth, and their significance much like the emaciated and overworked bodies have dissolved into the stolen American soil. Yet instead of sprouting seeds of progress, this soil breeds a continued oppression of black bodies. This oppression is perhaps most evident in the western words implication that colloquial or comedic use of the term “n*gger” symbolizes racial progress.
Thus, in waiting for the term’s retirement, the black collective anticipates the impossible–for the white world to take a small step to relinquish their systemic power. The term was implemented as a means to maintain a position above the black body, and whites continue to use the term publicly for the same reasons. Maher, could have easily, and I’m sure he and the majority of whites do, used the n word off camera. The decision to do so publicly was because he could. Similarly, in my provided examples, each white individual used this racial epithet in a public place, drunk off a systemic white power that conceives every public space as subject to white domination
The sadistic white mind— historically inebriated off power—assumes the height of racial psychopathy in staring into the black collective and calling them what every stolen opportunity, every stolen dollar, and every drowned, whipped, lynched, burned and raped ancestor symbolizes in past and present America.
Interestingly, this gaze into the black eye, is a central component of my two earlier examples. Notably, both acts seemed centered on not just saying the word to a black person, but staring them in the eye as they did so. I align said behavior with the traditional racial psychopath who looked blacks in the eye as they raped them, who looked as black flesh was chewed by dogs, who watched the life leave a black body during public lynchings. Namely, my mind thinks of the late Claude Neal and the white eyes that watched his flesh be torn from his body and jammed down his throat in a torture murder that lasted several hours. Let us not forget the white gazes that purchased the mutilated portraits of black bodies, and those who purchased black limbs ripped from their bodies in mob attacks.
White desire to induce and see pain illustrates white assemblage as contingent on black dismemberment—substantiating the white collective as what Dr. Bobby Wright labeled a racial psychopath who performs evil with no conscious.
Maher does a similar act in staring down the contemporary pain of the black collective, and mocking the very institution that proved a platform for his lucrative whiteness and conventional success. His ability to stare into the collective gaze of the black collective and use a term that jests the narrative of the abducted African violates the black body in the same manner as a lynching or rape.
Using the n-word is a socially accepted means to verbally assault the black body. The word does not function with the simplicity of an article, or the certainty of a noun. For the “n*gger” is no person, place or thing, it is an action. In a 2007 essay for The Atlantic entitle N*sggerization, Cornel West defines “n*ggerization” as the following:
N*ggerization is neither simply the dishonoring and devaluing of black people nor solely the economic exploitation and political disenfranchisement of them. It is also the wholesale attempt to impede democratization—to turn potential citizens into intimidated, fearful, and helpless subjects.
To use the word “nIgger” is an attempt to “n*ggerize,” to subject the black body to a verbal bludgeoning that ties the contemporary black body to a tree beside the ghosts of their ancestors, bare-backed and anticipating the physical wrath of white supremacy designed to force the black mind to mentally acquiesce to inferiority.
Therefore, it goes without saying that Maher’s apology is as insufficient as it is insincere. It also goes without saying that Maher should lose his job. Although it is doubtful that he was every deserving of such visibility anyhow. Nevertheless, whether fired or not, Maher’s fate will not stop racism. Who knows, Maher may have a clause in his contract that promises a huge payout if fired. He is also at the end of his career, and in addition to being a white man in America, it is guaranteed that Maher will not suffer, because earth is not hell for whites. Thus, it is not his job that the conscious community desires Maher to lose, it is his privilege.
Will the heat of hell change the setting? No, just as firing Maher will not end black suffering. If Maher does get fired the firing will function to imply that the world has “come a long way,” despite occurring in a world where Bill O’Reilly can get fired for “sexual misconduct” but cops are not fired for murdering black men, women or children.
It will also serve as the foregrounds for firing blacks who saying things like “white people,” “pass the crackers” or even “white privilege.” As an oppressed group, we must be sure not to misconstrue what appears to be an opportunity for progress for what it is—an opportunity. Nothing in America has been said or done for the sole purpose of helping blacks, and America proceeds cyclically not linear.
Welfare, affirmative action, diversity initiatives, financial aid, etc all function to aid whites, despite seeming to provide opportunities to the disenfranchised. Moreover, in accordance with the historical trajectory of a country established on the spilled blood of those labeled “other,” the white world will find a way to turn n-word, a source of collective black pain, into a gain for whites.