Thursday, March 30, 2006

The N Word

The other night at a family get-together, my aunt said something racist, even though she is not (to my knowledge) a racist. Then again, maybe my knowledge of her is not what I thought it was.

We were at the dinner table, just Aunt (age 42?), my cousin D (male, age 25) and me (age 27). The rest of the family were in various parts of Grandma's house, watching movies or playing with kids or whatever. Aunt said she was exhausted after a long week, because with the new bank merger her company is involved in, everybody who was not downsized suddenly has a lot to do. She said, "They've been making us work like niggaz."

I stopped, my fork in the air, and said nothing. I'm sure I had an ugly look on my face, but Aunt was sitting to my left, not across from me, so I don't know what she saw. I looked over at my cousin, who was sitting across from her. He also said nothing, but didn't pause as long as I did, and kept his countenance enough to keep eating.

My aunt was instantly embarrassed (I think), and said kind of meekly, "Excuse my language." Pause. Meek voice: "But it's true."

I am sure that my facial expression did not get any nicer. Cousin D, after swallowing his food, was able to continue the conversation by asking more specific questions about the merger and who'd been let go. I kept silent for a while.

First of all, I think it's ridiculous that a 42-year-old banker is using ANY words that end in a-z. Getting that out of the way, I wondered what the hell was going through my aunt's educated mind that she felt it would be okay to use the N word at the dinner table (even if most of the family had already finished dinner). And most of all, I wondered why saying, "But it's true," was supposed to excuse the use of the word. Why would it be "true?"

Perhaps she was using that word in place of "slaves." Slave is, I think, a word that can be used without necessarily sounding racist. I used to work at WalMart, but my friends and I all called it SlaveMart. It was not a racist comment, but more of a comment on the practices of management and of the corporation at large. But then why didn't Aunt just say slaves if that's what she meant? It certainly would have made for more comfortable dinner conversation and would have been highly effective at conveying her feelings about work.

Later I remembered an incident from my aunt's life that might possibly explain her derogatory attitude. As a direct result of the actions of a black nurse in the maternity ward, my aunt's guts came spilling out of her stitched-up (stapled?) body a few hours after her caesarian. She has never properly healed from this, and has always always ALWAYS blamed that black nurse who gave her an attitude, wouldn't listen, and chose to manhandle her instead of asking her what was going on or even reading the damn chart. So yeah, I can kind of see where some hostility might come in. On the other hand, that was one nurse, not an entire community of people.

Then something else happened that night. I was talking to cousin R (female, age 24), who is D's sister, and her friend N (female, same age). Their families grew up in the same neighborhood that Aunt (and all my father's immediate family) grew up in, the same neighborhood we were sitting in that night. And this poor Hispanic neighborhood (poor being subject to interpretation) is in close proximity to an equally poor black neighborhood of local fame. I'm talking about Fifth Ward, which, for all those who listened to rap music back in the early nineties, is home of the Geto Boys rapper Willie D. (This is back when everything did not have a Z at the end.) This is a tough neighborhood, let me tell you. Some would call it a ghetto and some of the houses would certainly qualify. Lots of crime, lots of gangs, lots of parents who don't care.

So I'm talking to R and N. They had taken two children, ages 4 and 5, to a nearby Chuck E Cheese earlier that day. We talk about what it was like, and basically I hear a 15 minute diatribe about the atrocious parenting skills they found there. The complaints are about specific families, not one group or another, but all the families talked about are black. This mother watched her child push my niece off the merry-go-round and said nothing. That child kept pushing my son. I had to stop another child, age 8, who was beating a younger boy senseless. Another mother was looking at me, waiting for me to reprimand her misbehaving child so that she would have an excuse to come tell me off. This is the kind of thing I'm being told. And N says, "These black people, they didn't even care about watching their kids."

(Personally, I think Chuck E Cheese attracts bad parents of all races and ethnicities; I've seen a family of Mexican immigrants in that same restaurant (same location) start an argument with a black woman who was being a good parent and telling her own child to get off a ride so that the next person in line could have a turn. Same thing happens at Chuck E Cheeses all over Houston. Basically you have an enclosed location with games and pizza and a system implemented to keep children from being kidnapped whether you are watching your kids or not. It is an invitation to turn your kids loose without supervision while you sit at a table and enjoy a couple of slices. This is enticing to neglectful parents who are sick of their kids screaming about random stuff in an attempt to get attention. Some very violent kids are left to their own devices for two whole hours or more. Which is why I no longer take my children there.)

Do you see it? Do you see the social and racial prejudice at work, even among those who know better than to say The N Word? Do you see where it comes from?

There is an attitude about black people, I think, that the people of my aunt's and cousins' neighbohood have developed as a result of living near a group of people who have proven themselves to be examples of social deviance. Is this accepted stereotype an accurate example of black people in general? No. I don't even think it's an accurate example of the entire population of Fifth Ward. It is, however, an example of how the behavior of a small group of people affect the perceptions others have of a larger group. It is the reason why we all need to strive to be better people. We need to educate ourselves against having prejudices, but we also need to not spur new ones on with our own bad behavior. Stereotypes, however wrong they are, are rooted in a grain of truth. The best way to conquer stereotypes is not live up to them.

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