We were walking down the street when Colin asked me if I’d ever feel comfortable saying that word. Colin — 24, biracial in the way that is still largely read as black — and me, a Jewish but let’s be serious, white, girl on the edge of 30; and Colin wanting to know whether I, with my intelligent, progressive world view, would ever say that one word that white people are not allowed to say.
I paused before responding. “Well,” I said finally, “on the one hand, I think that words on their own are completely meaningless, and only ‘offensive’ because we, as a society, imbue them with meaning and power. On the other hand, I understand the painful history behind that word, and I don’t think that arguing for my supposed right to be able to say it is a battle worth fighting.”
“Have you ever said it?” he asked.
I had. Years before, as a younger and more naive me working at an after school program serving low-income (and predominantly Black and Latino) high school students, I’d said it during a class. I forget the point I’d been trying to make; but I remember assuming the affect of one of my students and saying that word, though, of course, with a soft a at the end. The stunned, uncomfortable silence that resulted was enough to deter me from ever saying it again.
“Yeah,” I said. “And I didn’t feel good about it.”
Maybe a few weeks later I was in bed with a Jamaican man. He was the kind of big that makes people get out of your way as you move through the world, and the kind of rich and famous that opens doors for you wherever you go. In the midst of sex, he asked me to say that word — he instructed me to say it.
“Fuck me with your cock,” I said, though I inserted the forbidden word between “your” and “cock.” I think white people are supposed to get some sort of thrill from saying that word, the kind of secret pleasure derived from doing something you’re not supposed to do. I didn’t feel that way, though: the only thrill I got was from my delight in being able to satisfy another person’s kink.
Over the course of my time with the Jamaican man, I said the forbidden word repeatedly. Frequently. In person, over IM, over text; always with the intent of giving him pleasure, of giving him a thrill. And it worked: I would say the word in various permutations and he would throb with pleasure, he would tell me that it turned him on, he would tell me he was about to come. The word, in this context, became less a slur and more a trigger. I stopped thinking about the history and the meaning and the horrible ways it had been used, and treated it as my own secret key to someone else’s sexual pleasure.
Sometime during this relationship I had drinks with Colin.
“I figured out a situation in which I’m comfortable saying that word,” I told him.
“Oh?” he responded.
“Yes,” I replied firmly. “When a large black man is fucking me and asks me to say it.”
He laughed, and made mention of a Donald Glover bit in which a girl using a similar line makes him come harder than he ever has before.
“Well,” I said, “I wouldn’t say it unless explicitly asked.” And then, after I’d had a few drinks, I mused that perhaps, in some way, repurposing the word in such a fashion was a way of nullifying its hateful power. Sure, a white girl might be degrading you with the word used for years to oppress and denigrate your people, but here you were, fucking the ever living shit out of her.
“I mean, it’s like conquering racism with your dick.”
Later — much later — I fell in love with a different man, this one the child of Haitian and African immigrants who’d grown up in a lily white suburb. At some point I told him the story of the Jamaican man, curious to see how he’d respond to it.
He was, shall we say, put off by the notion. “Have some self respect, man,” he said, as though my long gone lover could hear him.
When we slept together, I didn’t say the word, or even any of its kinder, gentler cousins. Race didn’t really enter into the bedroom here: not because we existed in some sort of Benetton ad where no one sees color, but because our difference in melanin wasn’t a part of our sexual dynamic.
I didn’t miss saying it. But I didn’t regret saying it, either. Maybe I should have learned some grand lesson about race, or sex, or prejudice. But what I really learned was this: words have power. And while that power has been used to cause great pain, sometimes — sometimes — it can be used to cause great pleasure.
[Photo of couple kissing via Shutterstock]