You can say the M-word but not the N-word

11/27/2006

On a gray day in 1987 the Muse was riding shotgun with a colleague en route to an airport to catch a plane that was itching to get going. As we speeded down the thoroughfare, a white car driven by a black woman blew through a yield sign causing my colleague to go into a shrieking, four-wheel lockup.

As every item in the car that was not buckled down sailed by, or into, our heads, I uttered a phrase I have never forgotten. “Stupid nigger!”

My colleague and I looked at each other with equal parts relief that we were alive and astonishment at what I had said. The latter evoked a mutual response. “Where the hell did that come from?”

If I am honest enough to own up to that, I’m hoping that you’ll believe me honest enough to pledge that this was the only occasion in a half-century or so of living that I have ever said such a thing. I revile racism in all its forms. My record amply reflects this. Still, it was there.

Did it come from having heard the term in childhood? A frightened response? An angry response? Am I (are we) genetically wired to respond in this manner to a threat? Flight, fight, or epithet. I don’t know. But it was there.

I’ve been thinking about that moment a lot in the days since Michael Richards’ crazed racist tirade at two black men at a California comedy club. I am struck by the fact that he keeps asking that same question. “Where did that come from?” I have no way of knowing if his lapse was unprecedented, as was mine. But I do note a difference that constitutes quite a distinction.

The media’s coverage of this story reminds me of an apple-polishing schoolgirl tattling on a classmate. “Teacher, Kramer said a bad word.” Sadly, in focusing on the bad word, they’ve buried the lead. However repugnant, Richards’ use of the word “nigger” pales in comparison to his reference–check that–veiled threat that the young black men could be silenced by lynching and having “a fork stuck up their ass.” That is far more than a slur, it is America’s shame.

Estimates vary widely, but respected historians have documented over 2,500 cases of African Americans dieing at the hands of white lynch mobs throughout American history. It’s a statistic that bears repeating, yet despite endless coverage of the Richards rant, I’ve yet to hear it. It reasonably begs the question, how are blacks to forgive such a thing if whites obsess over Richards’ use of the word “nigger” while essentially giving him a pass on his appalling allusion to torturous, racially-motivated homicide?

It’s like pointing at the semantical smoke and forgetting the fire that fueled it. A teaching moment lost again, until it’s lost again.

I was equally struck by the furor a few months back over defeated Senator George Allen’s use of the word “macaca” to describe a fellow working for his opponent’s campaign. The media took absolute zeal in telling us that “macaca is a racial slur in Africa” and that Allen was also accused of “using the n-word while in college.”

Pardon me for asking, but if one is sufficiently coarse to require an abridgement why not the other? Why, upon learning the meaning of “macaca” was it not instantly given “m-word” status?

And why, in the context of such reporting, was it never mentioned that the continent that was the source of the m-word was also the source of some 12 million people ripped from their homes and consigned to slavery in the Americas from 1400 onward? Oh yes, another shame subsumed by mock outrage over a phrase used by some celebrity that forgot, or never knew, about the shame.

If we are to make progress on race, we whites must remember not only to watch our words, but remember our shames. And if by happenstance that woman who pulled in front of us that day in 1987 should read this, I want you to know, I am dreadfully sorry for both.

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