A few months ago I went to a show with my husband. We were seeing Justin Townes Earl, my Valentine’s gift for the Hubs. Earl sings the kind of sad man with a guitar music that my husband loves (Hubs calls it alt-country). The opening act, a busker from Tennessee who had a voice like warm molasses, was pretty good, but I only really got to hear about three fourths of his act. Because somewhere between the first song and the last one the severely inebriated man in the row behind me, who I’d asked to please use his inside voice, called me a nigger.
This isn’t really a story about sad bastard country songs and a middle-aged married couple going on a date together. This is a story about racism in the United States in 2015.
Sorry. I know you’re tired of hearing about it.
I guess I should’ve expected it. After all, racism is less like the flu and more like cancer. Most white folks see racism as white hoods and Neo-Nazis shouting invectives, explosive and violent like a bad stomach flu. But it isn’t like that at all. It’s quiet and pervasive, striking when you least expect it, cancerous and just as terrifying.
Like cancer, you never really know how bad it’s going to get.
The first time I was called a nigger I was little, playing on a playground with some kids who were older and didn’t want a kindergartner tagging along after them. I didn’t know what the word meant at the time, not until after I told my mother (who is white) and she started crying in response. Back then, I only knew the word was bad, like waiting too long to go to the bathroom and peeing your pants. I didn’t know it carried poison in the syllables, burrowing deep into your soul long after the initial contact, slowly releasing its toxins in those quiet moments right before you drift off to sleep.
At thirty-six, I know the damage the word can cause. Especially when you aren’t expecting it. We downplay the effect of language, but just as the words I love you can brighten your day, so can nigger destroy. It isn’t just a word. It is two hundred years of oppression distilled into two guttural syllables, a barbed reminder that no matter how much you achieve, no matter how hard you work, you will never be better than the color of your skin.
You will always be a slave in Southern fields picking cotton and tobacco. Livestock, not a person.
Spoiler: that is not exactly an uplifting message.
I’ve been going over Friday night since it happened, wondering if there was something I could’ve done differently. Maybe I could’ve waited for someone else to say something. But other folks did say something. My husband asked the men to quiet down. The elderly man next to them asked them to lower their voices, since it was a nice event. And it was. It was a show with seats and sixty year old men wearing Chaps sweaters drinking dirty martinis out of plastic cups, their wives drinking similar cups filled with a dry red, the driest you have. It was a crowd that probably went every year to the Outer Banks, to the family beach house, a crowd that had an alphabet soup of letters behind their names, who gave money to NPR and read the New York Times every Sunday and always finished the crossword puzzle. Nice, cultured white people. The kind we pretend are above racism and things like using the word nigger.
Another of the myths we tell ourselves is that racism is the periphery of old, white people, the elderly versions of those angry women holding signs in the background of black and white school integration photos from the 1950s.
But this man wasn’t old. He was my age, mid-thirties, maybe a little older. He probably has kids somewhere. He probably tells them, the same way he told me, that he is a white man and he has rights, that niggers are ruining this country. I imagine he tells his children, young and impressionable, that their woes are caused by some black woman somewhere on welfare, sucking up valuable national resources. The reason Janie can’t get a new Barbie is because of black people.
If I’d been in a fighting mood I would’ve told the man that black people are the ones who built this country, that the suffering of slaves is the foundation for the riches we all enjoy today. But I didn’t want to fight. I just wanted to enjoy the music like everyone else.
After the usher removed the man everyone in our section apologized to me. They were properly horrified. After all, he had said the N word, and that is unacceptable. I smiled and said thank you, but I also wondered how many times they’d witnessed similar scenes and not said anything. Had they been on interview panels and gone with less qualified white candidates over candidates with obviously black sounding names? Had they laughed at tasteless jokes about thugs and baby mama drama at cocktail mixers? Probably.
I got the feeling that they were less sorry about the racist invectives the man had spewed and more sorry that they’d had to witness the whole sordid ordeal.
After my husband and I got home I asked him what else the man had said. As soon as I heard the word nigger, as soon as I saw the man’s face, twisted with righteous fury, I left to get the usher. I’ve experienced that scene before and there was nothing to be gained from enduring it yet again. While I was gone the man and the Hubs had exchanged words, and maybe a few shoves. I suppose now would be a good time to point out my husband is white. The drunk dude apparently forgot that my husband had rights as well.
Out in the lobby, the drunk guy had continued to hurl insults, mostly at the Hubs, who had also gone out in order to talk to the cops when they arrived. “He called me an Uncle Tom,” the Hubs laughed. “It was pretty pathetic. He wasn’t even good at being a racist.”
I woke up the next morning and the first thing I thought about was going to a nice show with nice white folks, a classy show in a classy venue, and being called a nigger. I wondered how many more times I was going to have to hear that word. I thought about my daughter, who is light enough to pass as white. Was she going to bring home a guy at some point in the future, a boy she loved, only to have him dump her after he saw that her mom was the color of a worn out coffee metaphor? Would she resent me for it? Would she think that maybe she wasn’t worth being loved?
Here I am, four months later, and I am still thinking about the damn thing. I'm still thinking how my night was ruined because of one ignorant bastard. And all I can think is that the Hubs was wrong.
The drunk dude was a pretty effective racist.