Once upon a time, I confronted a white man who said the word “n—-r” in a meeting. I was the only Black man in the room. New to the job. But I wasn’t the only one disturbed. Others present — white men and women, and Black women — looked as uncomfortable as I felt.
To be clear, the white man hadn’t directed that word at any of the Blacks in the room. As I recall, it came out casually as he was reflecting on behaviors of the Alabama of his youth.
But it was no less disturbing. No less offensive. And that’s because he said it with ease. No stuttering. No hesitation. It sounded disturbingly familiar, even if it wasn’t.
For the record, this man has done a lot for me – before and since he said that word. In fact, we have a good relationship to this day. And that’s because when I confronted him, he heard my concerns and apologized. He was wrong, and he owned it.
That is more than I can say for Tarrant City Councilman Tommy Bryant, who called fellow Councilwoman Veronica Freeman a “house n—-r” during a City Council meeting in July. Bryant is white. Freeman is Black.
Bryant has refused to resign. And he’s excused his bigotry by saying that Tarrant Mayor Wayman Newton, who is Black, called Freeman that word in an executive session. Newton denies this.
But even if Newton had called Freeman that word, that doesn’t give Bryant license to do so. I’ll come back to this point at the end of the column.
First, let’s examine the resurgence of the public use of that word by white people seeking to demean and dehumanize Black people. I can’t help believing that four-plus years of Donald Trump’s brazen bigotry and antagonism paved the way for it.
This may explain why some of Trump’s insurrectionists decided to call Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn that word during their Jan. 6 attack. Treason wasn’t enough, so they spiced it up with bigotry.
“’You hear that, guys,” yelled a woman in a pink MAGA shirt, according to Dunn. “This n—-r voted for Joe Biden!”
A small crowd, riled up by Mo Brooks’ profane rant and Trump’s pledge to lead their treason, joined Pink MAGA Lady: “Boo! Fucking n—-r!”
The history of that word makes it ugly, hateful and murderous. It was the weapon of the slave master, the white-sheeted Ku Klux Klan member, lynch mobs and the sheriffs, police chiefs and deputies that colluded with them.
Consequently, it is a word that means something entirely different coming out of white mouths than it does Black ones. Black people say it for three reasons: to project their pain, diminish that word’s power or – ironically – transform it into a term of endearment.
The first use points to a common practice of the powerless. Use something to hurt others that has been used to hurt you. What could be easier as a Black person than to aim that word at other Black people.
The second use, well, think of Dick Gregory and Richard Pryor, two of this nation’s greatest comedic minds. They and other Black comedians in the 1960s and ’70s tried to grind that word into irrelevance, draining it of its power. We can debate if they succeeded.
The third use arguably starts where the second finishes. As the offensiveness of a discriminatory term starts its decline, the group it was intended to oppress hurries its demise by flipping its intent.
Women have done this with “b—h.” But that doesn’t mean men have permission to call a woman that word. Try it if you dare. You better have your health insurance paid up.
Coming out of a white mouth, the pejorative N-word projects the pain of slaves being beaten, lynching, the terroristic, racially motivated rapes of Black women, land theft and convict leasing. It conjures up White Supremacy and America at its worst.
So to be clear, it doesn’t matter how many times you hear a Black person say it — or some derivation of it, it’s still off-limits to you, white people. The history of our nation makes it so.