I recall back in day when you’d go to friends’ homes to hang out and you’d see empty liquor bottles that had been emptied sitting on the mantle. They served as quasi-status symbols of sorts indicating the imbibers’ high-quality drinking taste, and of course, their ability to afford premium liquor…at least on payday. Thus, one’s upper-lower class status only lasted as long as the Crown Royal or Courvoisier did.
Status came back to memory recently after a trifecta of events that reminded me of my status amongst some who would rather I have lesser status than themselves, and who’d go to extremes to make it so. In each case the name “nigger” was hurled around loosely without fear of consequence.
In the first instance, I was confronted with the word in way that jolted me out of my normal relaxed, or as my friends say, “laid back” state of being. I was minding my own business and playing a game of Scrabble on my cell phone when out it came from the blue on the app’s chat feature. The bubble lit up signaling my opponent had sent a message. Typically, you’d expect something like “gg!,” short for “good game!”
Instead, I received a unsportsmanlike repudiation for who I am. The message read: “nigger bitch.” My response to myself was “Whaaat?!” The words felt like a cheap shot coming from a poor loser with infantile expression skills. And for what reason? I had declined to play him a third time after defeating him twice. This from a guy whose picture showed him as a family man with two young boys in his arms. He knew that I am black because of my posted picture. There’s no safe black space, it seems.
Now, I’d just watched, less than an hour before, Eric Deggans, the NPR Media Critic, describe on a TEDx Talk his annual encounters of racism while he was a student at Indiana University. Someone would call him “nigger” every year when he was walking down the street. He said it would happen “even in a place as cool as Bloomington.” Following the story, he then proceeded to call his TEDx audience into a deeper conversation about race.
Well, the name-calling and racist behavior happens even on a place as cool as the Scrabble app, too. If playing Scrabble in the comfort of your own home isn’t safe, what space is?
In 1974, the comedian Richard Pryor released his 3rd, and largely, most sensational album, “That Nigger’s Crazy.” Even though I was only 13-years-old at the time, I knew then that I was listening to some of the funniest material that I’d ever heard. Pryor had a way of making life real, serious, and hilarious at the same time. His use of the word “nigger” brought the term into the mainstream in a way that normalized the tension inherent in the word. His usage, though quite vulgar at times, was not intended to hurt or dehumanize people. It was meant to humanize.
What I experienced on Scrabble was obviously meant to dehumanize me in my opponent’s mind. There is a term for this type of name-calling: casual racism. What distinguishes casual racism from, say, blatant racism, is the upgraded sense of stereotype and negative prejudice that come from such remarks. People who engage in casual racism will associate me, as an African American, with some stereotype that intends to denigrate or humiliate me as a human being. Blatant racism is about exerting power over another person, community, or ethnic group. It's about putting people in their place.
Casual racism is reportedly responsible for a spike in African Americans seeking safe spaces in their everyday living. African American parents, for example, are home-schooling their children more. Rather than subjecting them to the effects of casual racism in the classroom by students, teachers, and school district policies (known to be responsible for over-representation of black youth in detention), parents are electing to provide a safe space at home.
But, can this prophylactic approach really protect black kids from the inevitability of racism that always lurks beyond the curtain of life? As we know from America’s history of racial violence, those who really want to intimidate black and brown people have no problem slinging the violence through windows with kerosene-filled jars, burning crosses in folks’ yards, and more recently, calling the cops to report you walking through your own neighborhood.
I’m not one of those persons that is typically surprised by racism, however it is encountered. In fact, I believe that racism is here to stay. It was Jesus who said “the poor will always be with us.” Likewise, for racism. It will always be with us. Why should we expect anything differently as long as systems of hierarchy and oppression prevail in societies, in the workplace, in churches, etc.? But, when I encounter some forms of racism, I am left shaking my head or with a visceral feeling of disgust deep down "in my body," to use the activist Krista Tippett's language.
Here’s the 2nd event. On that same day as the Scrabble retaliation took place, I was searching for a poem that I cherish by Carl Sandburg. It is titled “Limited,” written in 1916. As I searched (I had forgotten the title!), I stumbled upon another poem by Sandburg, titled…you guessed it: “Nigger,” written in 1916.
Here it is:
I AM the nigger.
Singer of songs,
Softer than fluff of cotton…
Harder than dark earth
Roads beaten in the sun
By the bare feet of slaves…
Foam of teeth … breaking crash of laughter…
Red love of the blood of woman,
White love of the tumbling pickaninnies…
Lazy love of the banjo thrum…
Sweated and driven for the harvest-wage,
Loud laugher with hands like hams,
Fists toughened on the handles,
Smiling the slumber dreams of old jungles,
Crazy as the sun and dew and dripping, heaving life of the jungle,
Brooding and muttering with memories of shackles:
I am the nigger.
Look at me.
I am the nigger.
Perhaps, one hundred years ago, such a poem was mainstream and acceptable. Probably, not for the black people, though. It is quite offensive to me in this moment. I was definitely taken aback to discover that one of my favorite poets was such a racist. This time, it was in the public space of my office. There is no safe space.
I’m not able to speak for all people of color, of course, but I imagine that most get tired of talking about and living through race matters. It wears you down. Recently, the New York Times reported the various ways that people get arrested simply living while black. The activities of daily living likely to be disrupted by arrest included napping and golfing. It seems like there ought to be other concerns in the world that we can devote our attention to. But obviously, denying the inherent worth and equality of brown and black people is a full-time commitment for many.
If this isn’t enough, open up a browser on Amazon and enter a title on race or racism. The results are endless. The book that I highly recommend is James Forman’s Locking Up Our Own. His title then results in suggestions of similar reads, such White Rage, The Color of Law, The New Jim Crow, The Second Coming of the KKK, and of course, Sing, Unburied, Sing. And who can forget Cornell West’s seminal work of the 90’s Race Matters, which elevated the conversation about race (and West) to another level.
A text on the subject that is very pertinent to this essay is Randall Kennedy’s Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. Kennedy’s book eloquently explains how Pryor’s use of the word has a friendly connotation. In fact, he quotes Black American rap artist Ice Cube as saying, "When we call each other ‘nigger’ it means no harm. . . . But if a white person uses it, it’s something different, it’s a racist word" (p. 52). In other words, usage of “nigger” comes down to context and intent.
All of these aforementioned brilliant books detail the effects of systemic racism in various aspects of our society. Yet, despite the endless canon of race-related works calling America and Americans to wake up and “stay woke,” racism persists like a bad case of teenage acne.
Every time I learn of another police shooting of an unarmed black man or woman, I am shocked that the accused police officer became that guy who insisted on reminding the world who’s really in charge. Then, I find myself burdening my friends with the perpetual questions: Doesn’t he [the policeman] watch the news? Didn’t he know that he’ll bring an investigation upon himself? But, then I realize that he’s internalized the game: he’ll simply claim “he felt his life was in danger” and he’ll either face no charges or eventually be exonerated.
Given these outcomes, it is no wonder that black and brown people remain under attack. An unspoken immunity to punishing whites for crimes against blacks persists.
We wonder if anyone is listening to the constant lament and if consciousness is being raised among those privileged with immunity. And if so, is anyone willing to take action. Consciousness without action equals status quo.
That is not to say that conditions for brown and black people living in America have not improved over the last two centuries. Of course, things have improved. Yet, the underlying dynamic of attitudes and beliefs that cause division and disparate treatment of people of color remains pervasive. Much of it in the form of unconscious bias.
I recall a pattern of racism and bias in my own family tree from my youth. I spent a lot of time with my first cousins on my mother’s side during my teen years. During conversation between my aunt and uncle, it was not uncommon to hear them referring to white people as “crackers.” The word would strike me as harsh and crude, especially coming from educated, professional class people.
But, they would refer to “those crackers” anytime someone was known to do business or socialize with whites. The anger and prejudice that accompanied the words was palpable and often left me confused. I experienced the emotion behind the language as having been derived from racial prejudice that I could feel in my body. I never saw those cousins ever interact with whites, so it was never clear to me where the sentiment developed.
That practice of name-calling whites “crackers” was largely private and restricted to the home. I never heard the term in the family business. It was sort of a family religion, but relegated to those cousins. I was presumed to be an adherent of the religion because I was blood, but in my mind, I really wanted no part of it. One can surmise that such is the way of the world when it comes to racial prejudice.
As a general rule, in my own home, my parents did not speak prejudicially toward people of any race. Occasionally, they would mention some encounter with a white person or white family, but there was no name-calling. I imagine living in military communities that were racially integrated during the 60’s had something to do with it.
Naming and name-calling has a history of its own. Ta-Nehisi Coates argues “the process of naming ‘the people’ has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy.” I certainly felt an attempt of imposed hierarchy upon me by the Scrabble guy. His words were an obvious reminder that there existed between he and I levels of power and privilege. He inhabited the upper level from which he could fling arrows filled with rage reminding me of my lesser status on the game board.
Name-calling has a history of its own that is not relegated to the United States. Indeed, I would argue that the casual racism that I experienced while playing Scrabble and that pervades society is less a black-white issue as much as it is a human issue. The records show that Romans dating back to the 5th and 4th centuries BC were known for the hardcore language used in their politics. Describing political opponents as “perverts” or “sons of whores” was not uncommon.
I would venture that neither practice is not relegated to the United States. Indeed, I would argue that the casual racism that I experienced while playing Scrabble and that pervades society is less a black-white issue as much as it is a human issue.
At the root of all Holocaust propaganda perpetuated by Hitler’s machine was the notion that European Jews were an “inferior race” to the German people. Using such a term to infiltrate the masses was a high-effective method of reducing one ethnic group to a lesser status of human beings that, although was a total fiction, became accepted as fact.
During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the Hutu referred to the Tutsi as inyenzi, or cockroaches, as a means of dehumanizing the Tutsi people. Deploying the state-run propaganda machine, the Hutu government incited violence of mass proportion against the Tutsi that resulted in a death toll of 800,000 Rwandans in less than six weeks.
The act of dehumanizing other people is, perhaps, the unconscious agenda of those who engage in name-calling, putting down, or otherwise denigrating those found to be “other.”
A question that surfaces for me is this: if I am a nigger bitch to my opponent in the Scrabble game, what does he consider himself to be? Obviously, not a nigger nor a bitch. I’d venture that he considers himself to be amongst the chosen ones.
That would be a similar self-chosen status that reared its ugly head during the 3rd event in which a white guy in a truck drove past me and another African American military chaplain colleague as we sat on a bench in front of the First Presbyterian Church of Colorado Springs. I had to ask my colleague, “Did he just call us ‘niggers’?” “He did,” my colleague responded. In fact, the colleague said it so calmly, as if he was unsurprised, that I had to ask him a second time to assure myself that I’d asked the right question.
When I reflected upon that experience an hour or so later in a larger group of workshop attendees, a gasp came over the room. People were stunned, in all likelihood, to hear the word spoken aloud and at the offensive nature of the act of name-calling on public streets in a respectable part of town. Afterward, several people (both black and white) approached me to offer an apology for verbal assault I’d experienced. Two persons apologized on behalf of the City of Colorado Springs. My mentor, a Colorado native, informed me of the state's history, which included a chapter of significant Klan involvement.
How are we to respond to the ongoing assault on black and brown people, conscious or unconscious? I believe that we can appeal to the sense of virtue that we carry within us. Virtues such as humility and compassion toward others, even offenders, can offer some sense of redemption and relief. Reaching for a sense of empathy might enable us to put ourselves in the other’s shoes and imagine what forces may be impinging upon them in such a way that makes them act out against a fellow human being.
As a minister in the Unitarian Universalist tradition, I am summoned to rely on my spiritual values and core beliefs in order to self-manage my emotional self. Chief among these values and beliefs is a conviction that love overcomes all and that every person deserves love. Universalist theology says that God’s love is so all-encompassing that God’s love is salvific and redemptive to all persons. I believe that. Even the Scrabble guy, Carl Sandburg, and the passing motorist in Colorado Springs.
In my heart, I believe that the treatment that I experienced on the Scrabble board will be with us ad infinitum. As long as there are people with different origins, cultures, races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, ages, etc., there will be grounds for persons to respond to others disparagingly. Even within those categories, people believe they are reason or right to act upon their impulses with impunity toward the other. We might as well learn to live with it. But, we need not give up on changing hearts and minds…one at a time.
Status is something that we should hand over freely and without consciousness. Each us of is called to self-determine our status. May we hold up our inherent worth high so the world can see it and not succumb to those who would render us low.
May it be so.