Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The enduring power of the radioactive word that begins with "n"

We were watching the news when one of the local racists about three stools down posed a current events question, the exact phrasing of which I’ll sanitize in case any sensitive sorts are in the room.

“Why’s it national news when some white football player calls some black security guard ‘the n-word’ when nobody gives a ‘hoot’ if someone calls an Italian a dago, a Mexican a spic or a Chink a Chink?”


Truly, I wish all my associates were of a refined and gracious bent, but if I restricted my conversation to exclusively enlightened thinkers it would be a very lonely existence and I’d have to stop talking to even myself.

So it falls to me to be the guy who speaks up whenever one of our bar bigots shouts a stupid opinion and disguises it as a question.

“Well,” I said, “I think for starters it’s because there’s not thousands of horrific stories of anyone of Italian descent being dragged down some Dixie Main Street and strung up in town square trees while crowds of cheering crackers including the local sheriff were yelling, ‘Kill the dago! Cut his pecker off!’”

The Tuskegee Institute reports 3,446 blacks were lynched in America between 1882 and 1968, thus making it a slow motion sort of holocaust.

I was in an otherwise charming Mississippi folk museum last year when I happened upon an enormous quilt that listed the names and many of the gruesome details of the African-Americans who were routinely lynched for mostly questionable crimes. Example: “reckless eyeballing,” glancing at a white person with what some interpreted as an insolent look, was often the justification for atrocity.

I read these accounts and thought, man, Nazi henchmen would scold these lynch mobs for their excessive cruelty.

And at the dark heart of it all is the one word universally used to address every single black man, woman and child.

It’s a word when used by a white man with a hostile tone represents a centuries-old terror so horrific and systemic it can never be brushed off with an oh-why-can’t-they-just-get-over-it shrug.

Nuclear waste is less radioactive. Nuclear waste is at least something we can bury deep in some Utah salt mine and eventually forget.

My daughters can use situational swear words all they want. They know they won’t get in trouble because I’ve for years told them, “There are no bad words. There are only bad times to say some words.”

Earlier this year, I had to add an asterisk to that parental guidepost after our 12-year-old asked me what the n-word means.

I told her what it meant and said it’s the one word you can’t use in a joke or use to address even one of your closest friends. And it will get you into a world of trouble if you say it in any public setting.

A third string Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver is finding this out.

I thought Riley Cooper’s apology was beautiful. He seemed sincere and genuinely chastened.

Of course, that’s coming from me, a 50-year-old Caucasian with enough Swedish blood in his veins to sustain lutefisk.

The forgiving reaction of his teammates is more telling -- and heartening. I was especially pleased to hear the measured reaction of teammate Michael Vick, a man who appreciates the value of redemptive forgiveness.

All in all, it’s another reminder of just how far we all have to go all together.

I remain doubtful we’ll ever achieve racial understanding and harmony, but I’m considering it a silver lining that we’re living in an age where using the one bad word generates the kind of national discussion that common lynchings rarely did.

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