“You’ve never heard about West Indians being cheap?”
The question had been leveled at me by my mother’s longtime friend, who was clearly amused and surprised by my ignorance. Her tone, teasing and with a musical lilt, was devoid of an iota of maliciousness.
“No! I’ve never heard that before!” I was now fascinated, as if I had come across an old family secret that I’d now been deemed mature enough to handle.
My mother’s friend called out to her, eager to acquire an additional testimonial. “You ever hear about West Indians being cheap?”
My mother didn’t even bother to look up from the laundry she sorted to field such a simple question. “Oh, yeah! The cheapest, honey!”
The matter was settled. “You know your husband is of West Indian descent, right?” I pointed to my father, whose family had come from St. Vincent and Haiti to find a better life here in America. I feigned disdain, but my motives were clear. My father is notoriously and hilariously cheap.
“Well…” My mother’s voice trailed off. A pregnant pause held in the air for a brief moment, and then, like rainfall after a snap of lightning, the jokes flowed like water—torrential, ceaseless.
For so many who see black people as a monolith, who cannot even comprehend the possibility of multiple black cultures, the above anecdote likely comes as a surprise. Yet in my mother’s house that day, filled solely with black people, there was a wealth of diversity borne from countless unique cultures, and a gentle familiar ribbing that is allowed due to shared racial experiences. I am American; African and Caribbean blacks are my cousins—sometimes literally. I tease my family and my family teases me, but I will love and stand with them. Always.
Had a non-black person been in my mother’s house that day and dared comment on West Indian penny-pinching, or African arrogance, or American idleness, he would have been verbally eviscerated for not knowing his place as an outsider who has happened to be made privy to “family” in-jokes—jokes that none of us truly believe or take seriously. I have been in the midst of a group of Filipino, Korean, and Chinese individuals teasing each other regarding which Asian ethnicity is the most racist and possesses the worst accent. I have been made privy to intentionally silly conversations regarding whether Puerto Rican or Dominican men are better lovers. And I’m sure somewhere an Irishman, an Englishman, and a Scot are jovially arguing about some trait that—as a black person and an American—is not for me to comment upon, no matter how many Europeans I call friends. I may be a beloved visitor, but I am not family. Oh, you want my opinion? Nah, I’m good. I’m simply honored that you feel relaxed enough in my company to speak freely and will enjoy the camaraderie. I have enough common sense and respect for those present to refrain from commenting, no matter who is willing to “cosign” for me.
“So, how come white people can’t say nigger and black people say it all the time?”
All the time? All of them? I won’t even address that part. But the answer is for the reasons stated above. The phrase often removed from the query is “without being considered a racist.” Please note that if you have typed some version of this question your disrespect and ignorance is completely exhausting and you are a blight upon every message board in existence. You cannot be jailed for saying nigger. You cannot be killed for saying it—not without rightfully severe legal repercussions for your murderer. You may lose a friend, a job, or a romantic partner—but you don’t have a right to those things. It’s “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” buddy. You can’t complain simply because you don’t have the common sense to pursue it efficiently. Perhaps next time you should try not being a bigot.
I don’t use the word nigger. I find it distasteful. But should I have a change of heart tomorrow and make the slur every fourth word I utter, I would not be considered a racist. I am black. My status is not one of an outsider. Due to shared racial experiences, I am “family.”
The problem is that many non-blacks, including all who have asked the question in question, refuse to accept an outsider status. The idea of being an outsider, even in a role that is respected and cherished (for example, Eminem or Teena Marie), makes them irate. How dare black people—these lesser people—deny us anything? How dare they have something to which we are not provided access? These people feel that not one shred of respect or privacy should be afforded to black people. Non-blacks who demand use of the word nigger sans negative social consequence feel that black Americans should be stripped of all elements of their culture for the consumption of others. For them, to be black is to be a constant performer—a jester for amusement. Black cultures are merely products to try on. Twerk team! S’up, nigga? Shade! Every ounce of every black culture should be splayed open to sample. They demand black people acquiesce dominion over any portion of any black culture should a person who is not black desire it.
And therein lies the issue. For in this age of globalization, it is a wonderful thing to share one’s culture with others. How fabulous is it that I can hear hip-hop from Romania, eat pad thai, and wear chancletas? S’great. But I know that when I immerse myself in a culture that is not my own, I act as a visitor or an ambassador. I do not get to assume ownership of that culture, and if the denizens of that region feel there are cultural rites I should not have access to? That’s fine. Would I love to dance in an Indian headdress? Omigaaawd, who wouldn’t? But this would offend many Native people. And so it is not appropriate for me to do so. I accept that. And for the record, I have Native ancestors and I still know there are lines I should not cross. Though I am “blood,” I am not “family.”
In other words, your black friends are not a valid excuse for your use of the word nigger. You are making them look corny, spineless, and anxious for approval. Stop embarrassing them. Stahp.
Unlike a weeaboo or an Anglophile, who comes across as desperate yet deferential, non-blacks who use the word nigger (or nigga) assume a disrespectful and dismissive position of dominance over black American culture. It is akin to walking unannounced into a stranger’s living room and putting your muddy feet upon their coffee table. “Well, they have their feet on the coffee table,” you cry. “Why can’t I do the same?” The answer is simple.
You aren’t family and it’s not your house.