I Really Can’t Say the N-Word?

Joshua Adair

Since moving to rural western Kentucky in 2009 to take a position as an assistant professor of Gender & Diversity Studies, a few incidents have seized my imagination and refused to relent: during my first semester a white female with the utmost sincerity asked, “so it’s really not okay to call someone a n*****?”; during  an on-campus protest in solidarity with Ferguson, MO, several high-level black administrators appeared, arms-folded-across-chests, to scowl at the crowd just far enough away so as not be mistaken for participants; a black woman of about eighteen in my Introduction to Gender & Diversity Studies course started crying one day as she admitted that she had no idea her fellow students hated black people so virulently after a string of anonymous racist posts were made on social media. These events all transpired in a place that dwells simultaneously in the present and the past; I teach in a space where the Civil War and all it symbolized and changed has never entirely concluded. If you visit our town square – just a block from my house – a monument to the Confederate dead towers over all events, offering to the (white) public, of all things, a water fountain long since inoperable, completely oblivious to its ironic status as a totem of race relations and a past that will not recede. No, here is a place where during any given academic year various students trot out all the trite lies about non-race and non-slavery related causes for the Civil War, willfully blind to the fact that for the south to “rise again” those lies must be confronted in profound and protracted ways. In a place such as this, where black students make up a mere 7% of our student body and a prominent local family, the Diuguids – pronounced “Do-good,” ironically – still receives acclaim for their efforts to drive the black population out of the city limits in the 1920s. In this place the KKK still regularly leaflets our neighborhoods seeking recruits, and as a result it proves exceptionally difficult to convince black university students that their lives matter and that they should stand up for themselves.

In 2009, I arrived in Murray, Kentucky, from the greater Chicago area a naif. I was unaccustomed to classrooms dominated by white, rural, often first-generation students. I was neither prepared nor forewarned that some of my students would arrive at university never having interacted with a black person in their lives, genuinely unaware that employing racist epithets was  not only unacceptable, but an advertisement of one’s own ignorance and bigotry. I was taken aback by the deluge of anecdotes involving racism that students of all backgrounds wanted to share with me the minute they realized I was interested and wanted to know more; clearly no one else brooked such conversation in their daily lives. I was aware that racism was still endemic, but it presented very differently in Chicago than it did in the rural upper south. I was astounded to hear multiple young female students assert that they were risking lives by dating black men. When I expressed skepticism, at least two informed me that they had been held at gunpoint by family members – one by her father – when their relationships became public knowledge. Another student, fighting tears, announced to the class that she would soon have to split up with her black boyfriend because she had to move home post-graduation and she knew her father would kill him should their relationship come to light. What’s more, their classmates – even the supportive ones – nodded assent and/or resignation as they introduced me to a world that suddenly felt very much like the 1950s or earlier. As for the black students in those classes – of which there were only a few – they appeared to accept these ugly realities without even a hint of disbelief or even outrage – they had grown up in this world and its gross unfairnesses and they appeared to see resistance as futile.

In that first semester, I lived in a constant state of incredulous outrage. One afternoon while grocery shopping at Wal-Mart, I bought a bouquet in an attempt to brighten my mood. As I placed my purchases on the conveyor belt, the elderly white man ahead of me grinned, pointed to the flowers and said “Tiger Woods should be taking a lot of those home to his wife right about now.” Those were the days of his infidelity scandals and I simply chuckled and let it go. When I reached the cashier, however, she chimed in: “he’d never’ve had them troubles if he’d a stuck with his own kind.” Because I’m white she assumed I would share her racist perspective and we would both have a good laugh. Instead, I walked away from my purchases and headed to the service desk to report her. When the store manager finally appeared, he treated me like a lunatic, barely stifling his own mirth at what he considered a ludicrous situation. I doubt anything was ever said to the employee. Why should there be? All of her co-workers and managerial staff are white; there are few black customers in the store ever; her easygoing racism suggests that such remarks are commonplace and not unwelcome. Black university students do shop there – usually in groups and with good reasons – but they understand implicitly that they are neither welcome nor safe. While this felt pronounced to me in some new way – I was an outsider of another sort in a hostile, closed environment – this aggressive resentment and hatred that characterized so much of life here was neither surprising nor unusual; it represented the quotidian fabric of their existences. Racism is, Sharon Patricia Holland reminds us, “almost always articulated as an everyday occurrence, as pedestrian rather than spectacular” (3).

What seemed de rigueur to my students still struck me as exceptional, though. Racism was much more personal here, at once aggressive and passive. At the beginning of any semester I would ask my Gender & Diversity Studies students to tell me why they had elected to take my course. I quickly became accustomed to one or more students responding, “I’m from Benton,” with no further explanation. “What does that mean?” I asked the first time, only to be informed that Benton – a town approximately twenty miles away – was reputed to be the KKK capital of our region, infamous for its hatred of and violence against blacks. It is a “sundown town,” where blacks are encouraged not to linger. The student – a Latino – responded “I don’t want to be like my family. I don’t hate anyone. I want to be different, that’s all.” Painfully aware of their reputation and history, the small group of students from that town who want to break free always seem to use that line to introduce me to their background. I learned from a colleague originally from Benton shortly thereafter that the KKK had actually marched right behind the band in his high school homecoming parade; to me, this was the stuff of ludicrous parody, not lived experience. The student I mentioned at the outset of this essay was also from Benton and the day she was brave enough to ask whether it really was not acceptable to use the n-word she paid dearly for her ignorance. Hers was a sincere question: she had been raised in a homogenous environment with no outside exposure; her family considered her defection to Murray to attend college a major betrayal. Murray – despite being a fairly small town – loomed like the worst of big cities in their imaginations and they could only fear the unnamable depravities their daughter would surely encounter. While I felt certain she was punking me with her ludicrous question, her classmates reacted quite differently: they pounced with a voraciousness for which I was also unprepared because while they accepted racism and bigotry as easily as they grant that sky’s blueness, such overt references were not tolerated. In that moment I came to understand what had escaped me thus far about that famed southern gentility I kept hearing referenced: it had virtually nothing to do with politeness and everything to do with silence. Words like that were “ugly” and not to be uttered, for fear of associating oneself with an inferior social class. The ideas and bigoted assumptions attached to that word could be entertained – nurtured, even – but they must not be voiced.

That student, who was what her more privileged classmates would call “white trash,” harbored no such class pretensions, nor did she understand that she announced her own social location when she uttered that hateful word. She legitimately wanted an answer and the backlash that immediately ensued illustrated perfectly the hypocrisy at work in this strange collision of class awareness and racism. In moments she was in tears, confused about their vitriol and embarrassed at her newfound awareness of her own ignorance. The more she tried to explain having been raised in a closed environment by people who believed their fear of blacks to be well-founded and protective, the more her classmates lambasted her utterances. I worked to intervene as best I could, but it was clear in that moment that whether they knew it or not, they had been inculcated into a system of silences and blindnesses early on and they lashed out to quash such unruliness without ever questioning the validity of their own outrage. I was shocked when I arrived at the next class meeting to discover that the offending young woman had returned; she approached me before the session started and expressed her humiliation about the events of the previous meeting. I felt great trepidation at accepting her apology as I did not yet trust her motives, though I was impressed that she had the nerve to persevere. And persevere she did: her mortification ultimately served as one of those rare transformative moments when someone catches his/her reflection and decides to alter it as a result. Though her classmates frequently muttered about her ignorance – teaching me in the process that the phrase “bless his/her heart” is always unkind, patronizing, and designed to shame – she faced them and left my class determined to do better than she had been taught. Conflict catalyzed change and created discomfort and an indelible memory for everyone involved in a far more effective manner than if I had stood before them lecturing about the importance of fighting racism. As an educator, I find that heartening to some extent, though I must also assert that having seen all I have in my eight years here, I am in no way convinced that she necessarily fully escaped all the fear with which her family had indoctrinated her. Voices for that message, sadly, enjoy greater volume and influence here and many folks find it difficult to sustain their sense of fairness and dedication in the face of fighting for such a small local population, relatively speaking. The lesson about conflict versus conversation, though, abides with me as a telltale feature of how change actually transpires.

This difficult reality was never clearer to me than in September, 2014, when I, along with a colleague friend, decided to stage a series of peaceful demonstrations on our campus in solidarity with the people of Ferguson, MO, after the murder of Michael Brown. I was fortunate to have two students – both black, as it happened – that semester who both hailed from Ferguson and who helped to offer some important first-hand insight to their classmates about life in that town. One student, especially, captured attention easily by chronicling her experiences as a pizza delivery driver; she recounted endless police stops for nonexistent violations, endless harassment simply for being black. For most of the students in the room, this was their first sustained experience with a black person, let alone one who had experienced so much overt racism in her nineteen years. They listened in horror as she recounted her family’s experience of having their home robbed and waiting for days for the police to appear so that they might take a report. In the end, the police never did appear and the student’s family was forced to confront the fact that safety was apparently not something to which they possessed any claim. At first, several white students pushed back against her claims in disbelief, but the student, thankfully, was forceful and put them in their place; this conflict changed the tenor in the classroom and shifted the direction that the uncomfortable students wanted to push the conversation. In our discussions of these events and the demonstrations in Ferguson, I sensed at least some interest in making a statement locally and so we organized demonstrations with picket signs, chants, and a few appointed speakers. Our first event drew approximately 100 participants – a fair showing for a campus that considers such bald displays of affiliation and concern as impolite, indelicate – and caused quite a stir in many corridors from residential colleges to administration buildings. I was gratified to be able to help my students participate in activism in a practical, hands-on manner and many of them were genuinely moved by the experience and vowed to further our efforts to raise awareness and encourage dialogue on topics like racism, police brutality, and structural inequality.

In the meantime, the trolls took to Yik-Yak, an anonymous social media site that facilitates users’ interactions with others in their immediate vicinity. As we were demonstrating in support of Black Lives Matter and the memory of Michael Brown, anonymous users were spewing vileness at an astonishing volume. Some users were advocating opening gunfire and murdering us protesters right in front of the university library. Others went old school and quipped about how it looked like the “n*****s had finally found the library,” or how they “didn’t realize the library was handing out fried chicken and watermelon today.” The posts were violent, angry, and hateful, with many of them referring to everyone assembled as animals in need of education. When these posts were presented to me the next day, I was not exactly surprised, but I was sickened, especially by the threats of violence and the unadulterated animus they revealed. When I shared screenshots of them with administrators, I was informed that I should have expected as much and asked not to stir up any more trouble. It took no time at all for me to realize that the official stance on these events was not that we needed to address racism in our midst, but rather that we needed to be southern-polite and ignore what was happening. We defied that request; in fact, we organized another demonstration for the following week. The result was the same, but amplified, with more Yik-Yak posts and this time several high-level black administrators appearing at the event to stand at a safe remove, arms-folded-across-chests, to glare at our demonstration as though it were the most disrespectful, ludicrous event they had ever seen. In the wake of that particularly disheartening demonstration, we – myself and my fellow organizers – started to receive personal visits from various administrators asking that we desist. Suddenly we were no longer allowed to reserve spaces for demonstrating and veiled threats were passed along by way of administrative assistants encouraging us to understand that our opinions in support of the Black Lives Matter movement were unpopular and unwanted. Several administrators, even when faced with nauseating evidence to the contrary, maintained that racism was no problem on our campus and that, in reality, we constituted the actual problem.

This position was even upheld by the folks engaged in diversity work on campus, as we were suddenly accused of attempting to wrest power from them in some twisted ploy for self-aggrandizement. While the Humanities faculty among whom I work were largely supportive and many were active in the movement, a strong vein of separatism developed with other faculty and we started to be treated like pariahs as we attempted to host teach-ins and other activities that might aid in the possibility of creating a public dialogue about race and the difficulties our actions had suddenly brought to the fore. Our campus newspaper got involved and reported the death threats and other implied violence circulating on Yik-Yak and suddenly everyone was talking about these issues in spite of the unofficial message from our administration that we should abandon our efforts. Anti-racism work was the enemy, not hate-filled, violence-advocating students, and the black members of our administration were in concert with delivering this message for reasons I cannot understand. Because no one would directly answer our requests for funding and support to enact intentional anti-racism work on campus, we were never afforded any opportunity to hear their rationale, despite requesting it. Instead, I was left with the distinct impression that they too were in need of convincing that this movement matters and that aiming to prove indistinguishable from their white counterparts would, in the end, serve no one’s best interests.

It’s easy for me to say such a thing, though, and I want to pause here for a moment and consider that. As a queer man living in an environment hostile to my own difference, too, I believe I appreciate the struggle inherent in existing as “Other” to the dominant culture. “You’re not from here, are you?” – a favorite local phrase for rooting out and “politely” objecting to difference – has been a refrain frequently hurled at me during my time in this religion-focused, in-group valuing place. I have been routinely singled out on campus and in the community for my difference – how I move, the way I speak, the causes I take up – with verbal and physical violence becoming somewhat regular features of my life. While I wish to avoid attempting to establish some equivalence here because I think to do so would be unproductive given that the circumstances are differently situated with their own respective features, I do wish to make clear that I grasp what it is to exist on the outside of a dominant culture and put forth that I endeavor not to be insensitive, I hope, to the various contours and complications inherent in being a minority attempting to maintain authority and ensure self-preservation in a system engineered to work most effectively for the benefit of others. As the only out queer man on the faculty here for a long time, I appreciate the challenges black administrators and faculty face in attaining and retaining their positions and I understand that my privilege as a white male affords me access to varieties of power and insulation that theirs may not. I wonder frequently, though, how can we expect students – regardless of their race – to get involved when the non-participation of black authority figures serves as their primary example? I want to be able to remain respectful here and empathize with those individuals’ impossible position which demands self-preservation but also requires their involvement and recognize that the former perhaps must take precedence over the latter. My own privilege in this world – even though I have often faced discrimination and violence of other varieties – has made it safer for me to stand up, to act out, but I am not convinced that my participation and deep concern can replace, or at least be valued as much as, activism on the part of my black colleagues. In this particular case, that was encapsulated by the efforts of the sole black professor participating whose dedication was unflagging, but sadly received far less notice than those who appeared to be judging from the sidelines and implying such behavior was inappropriate and unwelcome. While I cannot be certain those were their feelings, I left with the uncomfortable impression that they had been encouraged, if not required, to perform in this manner for our students which, if that’s the case, reveals a great deal about structural racism and goes far to debunk the myth that blacks in positions of authority signals that equal rights have been secured.  I cannot, however, nor do I wish to, speak for those individuals; I offer my impressions here because they are informed by my black students’ analyses of those circumstances and their acute awareness of a lack of support from many sources they felt they ought to have been able to count upon.

The black students involved in this demonstration, from what I could surmise from their feedback over the course of several months after various events we staged, left feeling unsupported, alienated even, doubting that their lives do actually matter. They know I say otherwise vociferously and with great frequency, but I suspect they consider me an anomaly and chalk my care and concern up to my own outsider status as a queer. They’re not wrong; I empathize greatly with other minorities and outsiders and my own experiences of bigotry, hatred, and discrimination certainly motivate me to work on the behalf of others in comparable circumstances. So while I think they admire and appreciate my devotion – they frequently turn to me for help and take as many of my classes as possible – they unmaliciously discount it as an offshoot of my own otherness coupled with my do-gooder-ness, if that makes any sense. The support and direction they most crave, I think, is from individuals they consider more similar to themselves, more acquainted with the nuances of their specific experiences, and my efforts fall just short of hitting that mark which, when coupled with what appears to be tacit disapproval from their would-be role models – never mind that those folks may be operating from fear, self-preservation, or an official or unofficial directive – tends to result in them shutting down, retreating into the quiet, disappointing reminder that things have not changed, and they might not ever. They meet my enthusiasm and determination in those moments with brittle, polite smiles; they don’t want to offend me but it’s clear they no longer believe I completely “get it.” I worry even as I write this that I don’t and I fear my blind spots will cause offense or alienate my audience.

And so determination seems to ebb and flow in this anti-racism work; I have found it is not possible to maintain the same level of engagement consistently because students and colleagues grow fatigued and distance themselves for myriad reasons. I never cease addressing it in my teaching, but my activism shapeshifts constantly. The efforts of that semester have haunted me in various forms since then, both in pleasant and difficult ways. For many of the white individuals who seized that moment as a chance to get involved, it was a painful, even scarring experience as they confronted the resistance and hatred in practical terms for the first time. Some of them found their constitutions too weak to cope with massive resistance and fled after what they considered to be an appropriate interval, shocked at their own lack of resilience and fear. One particularly senior and accomplished faculty member burst into tears at a meeting on the subject, overcome at having experienced hatred and vitriol targeting him for the first time in his 60 or so years of life. Ironically, it’s we minorities who end up being uniquely trained to endure this seemingly endless slog because we’ve never known anything different. I have to laugh a little, if mirthlessly, at how little stamina many of the folks who care actually have for fighting back; they either expect the battle to end quickly under their expert management, or they buckle under the realization of legitimate, unrelenting hate. In the case of most of my black students, they talk amongst themselves and sometimes in sympathetic groups, but they largely behave as I always did when I was being tormented as a young person for being different: they keep their heads down and say little, wondering if their lives really do matter.

If that sounds like a conclusion, it is and it isn’t. The purpose of this essay, primarily, is to offer a glimpse into a specific experience of racism, ignorance, and bigotry in a small town voted just a few years ago by Rand McNally to be one of the friendliest in America. It feels that way, I suppose, for a certain kind of people, so long as one ignores the fact that the vast majority of black folks are still segregated out of view in a small corner of town only a few blocks from the Confederate statue. To buy into this narrative of being the friendliest, you must also ignore the fact that in most bars, restaurants, and shops you see little manifestation of difference or variety when it comes to people. You must also suspend disbelief at the fact that our campus still maintains its own black student council, homecoming court, and Greek organizations, because to engage otherwise would require you to ask for whose benefit such segregation is still enacted. You might even console yourself by remembering that our university erected a plaque in honor of the desegregation of campus and hosted events in memory of that event’s 60th anniversary in 2015, never minding that our black students are still regularly assaulted and threatened by Confederate flag-toting “patriots” and that we’ve largely obliterated the history of race as an issue on campus. Of course in this process you will also have to ignore the white nationalist fliers scurrying about your feet periodically as you walk across campus, too.

It will not be easy to hold all these ideas and silences at attention in your brain, but if, when you start to falter – as you likely will – you remind yourself that it isn’t polite to mention topics like race, racism, discrimination, you can then congratulate yourself on your most excellent sense of self-control in adhering to a code of etiquette ingeniously engineered to keep us all in our appointed places. Of course there’s always the option of embracing a counter-gentility stance, one designed to complicate and disrupt the thinking and actions of others. You could, say, walk away from a pile of groceries and a bouquet of flowers to protest what you’re experiencing. You won’t get anywhere – that’s true – not today, or next year, or perhaps even in this lifetime – at least not on a large scale. Your endeavors – no matter how much you believe them to be earnest and much-needed – will still leave you frustrated and feeling like nothing makes any difference anyway, so why engage with something so utterly certain to upset you? Does all this controversy about BLM and related issues, you wonder, do anything but stir up additional trouble? Of course, it’s worth remembering that the trouble started in that classroom in which a student finally learned about not using the n-word or on the mall by those protests catalyzed something real and changed a few minds, at least.

Perhaps that conflict and discomfort are not the results you seek or the silver bullet you want, but I am determined not to give an easy or feel-good answer here because those responses ring patently untrue. When we agitate – no matter the form – energy manifests and people respond. Being a college professor, I know that learning is rarely easy and it’s certainly never peaceful; the discomfort people feel when we summon conversations about BLM signals the necessity of such conversations. We need to return to the site of that discomfort regularly and prod at its emanations to work to understand further how move forward. We need less of a focus upon neoliberal sensitivity – that political correctness which is responsible for many of these deafening silences surrounding these issues – and more of a commitment to stick with the conversation, even when it gets ugly and painful. I am convinced there is no other way. By way of concluding, allow me to return to that row of seemingly disapproving black administrators and their refusal to engage in a protest highlighting issues we may fairly safely presume they care about. Of all my experiences doing anti-racism work, I wish I could return to that one and approach it differently. Rather than staring aghast at my colleagues who, regardless of their intentions or true feelings communicated disapproval to all the protesters, especially the black ones, I wish I had prompted one or more of those students to approach them. I wish I had encouraged them to follow the example of the woman who asked if it wasn’t okay to say n*****, and risk humiliation and invite conflict to discover why they were responding to the situation at hand as they were. That moment of confrontation – of direct conflict – might have afforded a much greater opportunity and insight than a lot of other approaches people doing this work have. If nothing else, it might have opened both parties’ eyes to how they were being perceived. It could have revealed how they were analyzing the circumstances and encouraged them to shift their analysis and make themselves accountable to one another in ways that we never achieve when we simply lecture and chastise. Activism, I contend, in the form of direct confrontation and in full anticipation of the conflict that will undoubtedly follow, is our only path to conclusively dedicating ourselves to our conviction that black lives do, indeed, matter.


Works Cited

Holland, Sharon Patricia. The Erotic Life of Racism. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2012.