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On Being An Actual Nigger Woman

On Being An Actual Nigger Woman

I can remember the very first time someone called me a nigger. I was 12 years old and in the 8th grade. I was walking from the gifted program at Kenwood high school in Chicago back to Kozminski, my grammar school. I wasn’t alone, there were 5 of us that walked that way every day. Two boys and three girls. All kind of nerdy, but with delusions of coolness ahead in high school. And every day these two cops stopped us, and made us late getting to our regular school. They always asked the same questions, and we always gave the same answers. This day, for some reason or another they were really dragging out the BS & one of the guys with me made a comment about them making us late every day.

One of the cops was a white male who always seemed super angry that we were coming from the advanced program, and he took Larry’s offhand comment as backtalk. Next thing you know he’s got the boys on the ground, and is talking about arresting them. Being me (I was born a smart ass know it all), I said they hadn’t committed any crimes, and that he couldn’t do that to them. His response? He shoved his hand in my face and yelled “You uppity little nigger, don’t you talk to me that way!” It was loud. Loud enough that it drew the attention of an adult in the store on the corner. He came out to see what was going on, and the cops took off.

We’d never told anyone about the daily harassment, and while we were explaining ourselves to the store’s owner he told us to go to school, and tell our principal everything. Our school was only another few blocks away, so we booked it thinking that the cops might show up again. They didn’t. In fact we never saw them again.

I’d like to say they realized the error of their ways, but I suspect that it had more to do with us telling our story, and the principal calling our parents, Operation PUSH, the local alderman, and the precinct captain. Probably in that order, and probably with a threat to involve the media. That wasn’t the last time someone called me a nigger, it wasn’t even the scariest time someone said it to me. But, it was the time I remember the most vividly, because it came from an adult that we were supposed to be able to trust.

So, when people claim that Woman is The Nigger of The World? I want them to remember that not every woman is going to be called a nigger. Trust me, if I could give that word up I would, I certainly don’t want it. But I can’t, and I refuse to pretend that what happened to me could happen to a white woman. I can’t even give a rough estimate of how many times I’ve been called a nigger. Online it happens fairly often from people I’ve pissed off & trolls. Offline, people are less willing to say it to my face, but I know it’s still getting said. I have no idea why it is so important to be able to use that word for some people, but they really want to use it. Okay. Use it.

But, be prepared for possible consequences. I don’t care if you were joking, your black friend is okay with it, you didn’t mean it the black way, or whatever other dumb shit you want to tell yourself to justify it. At best? We’ll all know you’re untrustworthy as an ally, and we’ll probably assume you’re racist. (Trust me, no one gives a shit about your intent when you’re spouting racial slurs.) At worst? Well…you should have health and dental. Really good health & dental. Racism can be expensive.

21 comments to On Being An Actual Nigger Woman

  • There is no word used in America with as much vitriol and ill-meaning as ‘nigger.’ The only word I’ve heard that comes close is ‘faggot’ and it’s still not nearly as ubiquitous.

    Racism can be expensive.

    If only.

    • Jacky

      I’ve heard sq** used in a similar way, it may not be as ubiquitous because of the relative invisibility of First Nations women, but the individual experience can be just as frightening and hurtful. Can we focus on why racism like this is fucked up and not who has it worse.

    • MGB

      I’ve heard ‘tranny’ being used the same way, but since I’m not black & haven’t ever been called that particular slur, I doubt I know the full impact of n—.

  • Thanks for laying this out so clearly, karnythia. The photos of the signs embarrassed me as an anti-racism ally, but I couldn’t articulate it clearly to others as to just what was so disturbing about them.

  • Farah

    I had never even heard “Woman is The Nigger of The World” so thank you for alerting me to that bit of NewsSpeak. I’m not wholly surprised to see it came from John Lennon and Yoko Ono, two people who thought sitting in bed naked could change the world. Not a lot of analysis going on there.

  • Lise

    If that was not the scariest time you were ever called that, then I shudder to think what was.

  • untitleme

    This has been a real eye-opener recently with the Slutwalk and the white gal holding up the “Woman is Nigger of the World” sign at the rally. I’ll bet EVERY black person can remember the first time they were called one, and EVERY white person cannot…

    • Not entirely true. I’m White and I vividly remember the first and only time I was called the n-word. I was about five or six years old, wearing multiple small braids in my hair, and my uncle called me a “little n- girl”. I had to ask my mother what he meant.

      Which is not to claim this as a White experience – he was clearly trying to insult me by comparing me to a Black person, thereby implying that Black is inferior to White and I should strive harder to conform to White ideas about appropriate hairstyles. And child me was confused by the word, not threatened as the OP was. I was never in any danger, legal, physical or otherwise.

      • untitleme

        Thanks for relating your experience, Sylvia. My mindset was when white people were young, they may have heard it in an conversation with older adults and not called ‘nigger’ to their face. I stand corrected…

  • trainb

    Is the OP the owner of this blog? I’ new here. Hi.

  • The Rogue Slut

    You’re absolutely right. There is never any excuse for for someone to sling this epithet.

    It was more than egregious that the woman in SlutWalk NYC felt the need to use it on her sign. It’s such a sad state when people who think they are doing good do more damage than anything else. But not all SlutWalkers feel the same way. As a giant movement, not everyone will be in agreement on values and ethics. Being bound by a united front {like that of Feminism} will mean people from different experiences, identities and race will support some things and not others, will be sympathetic/empathetic; and frankly, some will just be plain stupid and bigoted. I stands with many SlutWalkers, but not all.

    Thanks for the post.

  • Nebzula

    Reading this post was very cathartic for me as I had the n-word yelled at me about a year ago while in traffic. I had been called Buckwheat (in a non-joking way) by a drunken stranger to my face while walking on a sidewalk in LA a few years before (I was sporting a huge, beautiful, curly afro at the time). But for some reason the n-word just hurts 100xs worse. And I don’t think it’s the actual word that hurt me; it’s the fact that such blatant, festering hate based solely on one’s outward appearance (over which they have absolutely no control) still exists. It saddens me that one day I’ll have kids who’ll grow up in such an ugly world. That word – no matter who uses it – makes the whole human race seem ugly and primitive.

  • I so agree with all comments. As a 45 year old black woman I can honestly say I’ve been called that word once to my face about 5 years ago in Manhattan by a crazy guy. It has no power with me so he moved on once he didn’t get the response he was looking for. But if someone has power of position over me (police etc.) said it I don’t think I’d let that go. The cowardice of it all would take me some where. So how dare this chick minimize what disrespected blacks have had to go through for generations

  • FX

    “Trust me, if I could give that word up I would, I certainly don’t want it.”

    I was saying something similar to this the other day in one of my classes* in regards to those folks who think we should just, “get over it and move on”.

    I said I’d love to move on if I could, but in order to do that what has happened has to be understood and acknowledged by those with power and privilege. It’s impossible to move forward until that happens. Until then, I’m just going to keep on working to make that happen.

    Thank you for a great post.

    *Fortunately my professor and a couple of other folks called bullshit on that too.

  • Nimo

    So I just stumbled upon this amazing blog and I absolutely love the discussion that I have seen thus far. I am not American but I am black and from Kenya, which ofcourse means I had a very limited understanding of racism until I came to Canada for my undergraduate studies. I find it very fascinating that the Ku Klux Klan still exists in the United States and wonder why none of the prominent black activists has challenged its right to exist legally. Americans are so enamoured with fighting for equality and democracy outside of their country, a lot of the time infringing on others sovereignty along the way. It seems odd that this sort of organisation would flourish in the States.

    • karnythia

      The KKK has a legal right to exist under our Constitution. Freedom of speech includes freedom to form racist groups.

  • Powerful story, and I thank you for sharing it.

    In my early teens I had to deal with the word often because Richard Pryor and a bunch of other comedians were using it all the time; goodness, Redd Foxx was using it all the time as well. Just like with rap it’s hard for the masses to figure out that it’s not a good thing to say to a black person just because they hear it in the media and people are either laughing at it or dancing to it. I certainly heard it before then but never as often from white people as I did when these guys were prominent.

    • Cat Heath

      Hi,
      About the rap thing spreading the n-word. I’m a white girl from northern England, I grew up in a predominantly white, working class area. The first time I heard the n-word, I was about 8 and actually thought it was what you called a person from the African country, Niger. But I only really began to hear the word in the early 90s when we first got music television. It was the rap vids. Kids just saw rappers referring to each other as n- and acting all cool with it and it gave a really false impression. There was no real realisation of the history behind the n-word. To this day, because of the lack of understanding of the history and cultural context of the word, people still don’t get it there. They know it’s nasty but they don’t really get why. Hell, I know one man of colour that actually introduces himself as ‘Mi Niga’ (spelled exactly like that but pronounced as you might imagine). He tags buildings with it too and just thinks it’s cool.

      Best regards,

      Cat Heath

  • Audrie

    It’s funny when you say you find it hard to give up the word because that statement is every bit of true. It does end up ringing in the ears for years and years especially when you didn’t do anything in the first place to be called out, except for being identified as a black person. I know I was called the N-word by some white guy in his home. He was pretending to hide behind the door in a bedroom. Then once my friend’s mom introduced him to me, he came out his room and shook my hand like nothing happened. I was young at the time and stayed with a white friend’s family when they took me to someone else’s home. You kinda don’t know what to do when your that young & you don’t understand why. I guess when your black, your just a NIGGER regardless. And people say racism is not a problem & that the idea of race should be ignored. Pssh!