The use of the “n” word has made headlines recently, mainly due to the use of it by Paula Deen.  Personally, I’ve never been called the “n” word to my face, and the one time I did hear it used towards a black person by a white person was when I was 9.  Unfortunately, the word isn’t going away any time soon, and black people still have those chance encounters with white people using it towards them.

Dr. Brittney Cooper is an assistant professor of Women’s Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers University and founder of Crunk Feminist Collective.  During a flight from New Jersey to Louisiana over the Fourth of July holiday, she had an encounter with a woman sitting next to her on the plane.

From Salon:

Standing just ahead of me to board was a handsome, traditional nuclear family. The mom was tall and striking and she had two beautiful boys roughly around the ages of 10 and 7. For some reason, they became the intent subjects of my usual people-watching, as I boarded the flight. The mother was gently nagging the older boy about doing his summer reading and making sure his exercises were accessible on the flight.

As we boarded, I noticed that this mom and I would be sitting in the same row, I in the window seat, she in the center. As we sat awaiting takeoff, I finished a text conversation and signaled to the flight attendant for a seat-belt extender, a fat passenger’s best friend. Then just as the call came to shut our phones off, I glanced over at her, and she was still texting, rapidly. I caught a few words of the end of her text that made me look more intently: “on the plane, sitting thigh to thigh with a big fat nigger. Lucky me.”

My breath caught in my chest.

And then there was pain. Humiliation. Embarrassment. Anger.

Oh. No. She. Didn’t.

Now, one could say that Cooper shouldn’t have been eye-hustling and reading someone else’s text messages, but how fucking rude and racist.

Cooper goes on to recall her first time hearing the “n” word at the age of 7 or 8.  A white classmate called her a “dirty ‘n-word”. Cooper had no clue what the word meant, but she could feel the hate seething from the classmate, so much so, that evening she had to ask her mother what the word meant.

What do you when someone directs the word towards you?  Cooper explained what she decided to do:

I started by sharing her words in a status update on Facebook — in part because in recent days, I have seen one too many friends, both black and white, readily defending Paula Deen, and arguing that her use of the N-word was an understandable byproduct of her Southern roots and most assuredly a relic of a bygone era.

However, as far as I could tell, this young family, in which the parents looked to be mid- to late 30s, were Northerners. So after waiting awhile and getting a handle on the tears that started coming steadily after I saw her words, I simply got her attention and asked her to read the Facebook status from my smartphone.

She saw it, kind of grunted her assent, and then said nothing. So I pressed forward, in a low voice: “I just want to let you know that your words were hurtful. And I hope you don’t pass that kind of ignorance down to your beautiful boys.” She replied curtly, “I don’t.”

How would you have handled this situation?

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  • Starla

    These were not vocal words, so I am not sure if an accidental squeeze of the fingers is what you had in mind.

  • Anthony

    It just occurred to me that a great response to be would have been to totally ignore the racist, and call a flight attendant, then request a seat change because the passenger next to her just posted on Facebook that she was sitting next to a nigger.

    • Dlo

      That would have given her power. I would have stayed right in my seat and let her suffer a trip next to a black person.

  • T.

    The point that she was trying to get across was that the people seemed perfectly wholesome and lovely and pleasant, and that the encounter reinforced for her that ugly attitudes can hide behind an outwardly attractive appearance. The contrast between the pretty outside and the ugly-as-sin inside is a key element of the story.

  • I began reading this post just before tuning in to hear, what I hoped, guilty verdict of G Zimmermans case. I,made it to the point in the story where our sister views the violent comment.
    He…made it, to the part where he’$ acquitted of second degree murder. After a lot of YouTube, news anchor listening, instaRallying, tweetSupport,fb posting, and dreaming about which ways to promote and encourage CHANGE for US. I thought about what I would do, or want the courage to do in our sisters situation. I came back to our sisters story, she performed EXACTLY the way the courageous parts of me imagined. Venerable is vulnerability. Courageously Confront w/ caution, concern, care, clarity and creativity.

  • mona

    I’m so proud of you for saying something. Its hard to speak through your pain.