The ‘N-word’ still stings

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During a recent commercial break from a TV program during which the issue of race once again dominated the discussion, my brother-in-law and I mused;

BROTHER-IN-LAW: You know, with all this talk about race these days, the controversies surrounding the word “ni_gger” in particular, I’ve been wondering whether use of that word has increased a significantly since the election of President Obama back in 2008.

YOURS TRULY: I’ve wondered about that too.

BROTHER-IN-LAW: My hunch is that it definitely has, particularly in the confines of private homes and bars. And I suspect other places when people of color aren’t around.

YOURS-TRULY: Yes, and probably many people resort to the “N-word” within the confines of their own minds without the words having to exit their mouths. But the reality is that the word can sting.

Does the “N-word” sting when I hear it constantly in the lyrics of rap music?…Yep!

Does it sting when I hear it constantly in race or slavery-themed movies in particular?…You bet!

Have I used the N-word myself? If I said no, you’d think I’d be lying. And you’d be right, I’m shame to admit.

However I will say – as flimsy as this may sound – that I’ve tried to distance myself from the word and to replace it with an occasional – and selective – use of the word “Negro,” or “Negro please” when some folks say or do really idiotic things that promote hurtful stereotypes, stuff that hurt, not help. And on top of that, I don’t side with those who position that use of the word exclusively “within our own community” is okay since it said there is a term of endearment.

But let’s step back a few years.

Before moving to Georgia recently I lived in Texas where I used to take early morning treks to Starbucks. Those walks allowed me to manage stress, unleash my imagination, inhale fresh and not-so-fresh air, people watch and get in some serious e-mailing on my hand held device.

Now if you were to ask me to take a wild guess, I’d say that roughly 40 percent of my article ideas emerge during those walks; others from forays into Barnes & Noble, poring through daily newspapers; and the rest through personal and electronic connections with people globally.

Truth is that every now and then during our journeys through life we encounter an occasional “fender bender,” a jarring reminder of some cruel realities. The nasty underbelly of diversity has a way of sneaking up on us sometimes and kicking us in the gut. Let me share something that happened to me during one of my walks. But first, I need to tell you a bit about “The Little Rock Nine.” Context is important before I go on.

For those of you who remember – or were unborn, or who lived someplace outside the U.S. (or outside of reality) at that time – the year 1957 was an important landmark in the struggle for civil rights when nine black youngsters made their way through a spitting, invective-spewing mob and throngs of federal troops up the steps of Little Rock’s Central High School. Their court-ordered mission? School integration.

Way too young to fully comprehend the magnitude of the indelible mark they were about to stamp on history, The Little Rock Nine climbed those steps in an incredible display of courageous resolve. The image of one girl in particular, Elizabeth Eckford, – head held high, sunglasses that covered eyes that stared straight ahead – is forever etched in my mind as a chilly reminder of the malignancy of our racial history in the U.S. Her courage – their courage – continues to this day to totally amaze and make this grown man weep.

Pause for a second and imagine yourself as one of those nine. Next, imagine yourself as a parent of one of them. You’re at home in front of your television watching helplessly as adults scream and spit at your offspring.

Shaken by these thoughts? Fighting to hold back the tears? Good. It’s important that I ready you emotionally to move on. Back now to that walk to Starbucks I started to tell you about above.

Truth is that I was absorbed in thought about a trip I’d been planning in October that year for a mixed race group to visit the Little Rock Nine Museum and to take part in activities commemorating the event’s 50th anniversary. Then suddenly out of nowhere verbal lightning struck when a SUV pulled alongside me and slowed to a crawl.

“Hey N_ger!” 

With surgeon-like precision those words sliced into my reality, stopping me dead in my tracks. No, no, no I thought; this didn’t just happen to me. I was rendered speechless, silenced, paralyzed in the moment.

Before I go on, I will say without a doubt that the N-word still raises its ugly head nowadays. Nobody’s so naïve as to believe otherwise. And arguably it remains the worst of all derogatory terms. But it’s really different when you or a loved one is on the receiving end of it. Then it becomes very personal. It stings.

While I recovered my senses, the SUV sped off amid a puff of exhaust smoke, its occupants rolling in laughter leaving me only to speculate about the factors that gave rise to such cowardly behavior. Although I’d grown accustomed to swatting away mosquitoes on my walks, this bite penetrated my armor. The psychological swelling, the anger, commenced immediately. It hurt. It stung.

Now to be clear, no group can lay exclusive claim to the N-word. Many will tell you that their version of the word (homo, slant eye, redneck, spic, raghead, Bible thumper, terrorist, B-word for strong women, etc.) has the same power to debilitate. This may explain, in part, why so many groups have “taken back” the word so as to neutralize it and, to the confusion by outsiders and the tight-lipped chagrin of many on the inside, only to be used within. That’s their way of seizing ownership of the word, to remove the sting.

Now my purpose here is not to evoke sympathy or guilt, or the tears that often accompany those emotions, nor is it to give too much ink to a few aberrant nitwits.

And as much as I wanted to, I suppressed the urge to shout back, especially when I noticed that the source of the barb wore a football jersey with the number 79 on it. That number, you see, is usually reserved for linemen; humongous, Texas-bred and fed linemen who tend to be much bigger and a lot faster than yours truly.

You see, a broken pride is one thing, a broken nose – mine in particular – is another. I was probably wise in choosing the former. Soaked in reality and life, limb and front teeth preservation, common sense had a way of prevailing for me at that moment.

Now to finish this story, I’m happy to report that my anger was soothed further down the sidewalk when I returned to my thinking about The Little Rock Nine. It helped put my pain into perspective when it dawned on me that while my N-word experience was one and came from one idiot, The Little Rock Nine’s were many and flowed from the lips of many “intelligent” adults. Put differently, my experience paled by comparison. That was another way for me to remove the sting.

Is there a silver lining in all this? I think so.

On one side this incident serves as a reminder of the ugliness that’s still out there. On the other it presents me with a phenomenal opportunity to spotlight the incredible courage of The Little Rock Nine. Google “Little Rock Nine” if you need a refresher.

It also gives me a chance to say that perspective and education are powerful detoxifiers, other ways to remove the sting.

In the end, and so as not to leave you in an emotional heap at the finish line of this narrative, there’s something you can do. Peer into your workplace, home, place of worship, school and deep into the inner sanctums of your conscious and ask yourself the hard question: What can I do to rip out the sting of the “N-word,” (and variations of the N-word in other contexts), choke the life out of it, slam it to the ground and stomp it permanently into oblivion?

Now go ahead and resume your journey. But please be careful…and watch out for the stings!

(c)Terry Howard is a writer, story teller, trainer and senior associate with Diversity Wealth. He is based in Douglasville, Georgia. He can be reached at

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One comment on “The ‘N-word’ still stings”

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