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.
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?