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.” Keep reading »