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What did you just say?

Before moving to the great white boondocks when I was thirteen, I lived in a city bordering Detroit to the north called Southfield. As a white kid I was a minority in this town and since Southfield was always the affluent neighbor of Detroit, I grew up with a different view of our culture than is commonly held. It was my African-American friends whose parents were lawyers, college professors, business owners, fire chiefs, government officials. They had homes with indoor pools, drove Mercedes, and wore suits. It is not that this is not uncommon for African-Americans, but when I was a young child growing up in Southfield, I thought it was only black people who had all the money; this was the stereotype I created in my head. Not that my family had it bad. My father was a union electrician and my mother an LPN; we were a working class family that also had five kids so we never had an abundance of things.

Attending a school with a student body that was eighty-five percent African-American, we were privileged to have amazing activities on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. I remember one year there was a multi-school program where we learned to sing songs like “We Shall Overcome” and then sang them together with the other elementary schools. We watched documentaries about the life of the great Reverend; on one occasion a young girl began weeping at the part when Dr. King was assassinated which was an emotional moment for the whole class and always sticks out in my head. Of course we were always educated on how to treat other people and warned against the use of racial slurs, especially the N-word. Race was never an issue for us, which is normal for young children. There was one occasion when a girl’s parents told her she could not “go out” with my best friend. No one quite knew how to handle the situation because it was an anomaly and difficult for fifth graders to understand.

Then middle-school came and lots changed. For the first time in my life I heard the word “nigger” spoken in everyday life though it was not directed from a white person to black person. I was introduced to common use of the N-word between black people and I was surprised and confused. All through grade school we had been taught about how ugly this word was and now people it was used to insult were using it to refer to each other. I am aware of all the implications surrounding the use of this word within the black community and I have absolutely no issue with it, mainly because it is not my issue, but in my eleven year old brain there were some bewildering thoughts. I did not understand why people were using this foul word so much when they knew it was the worst name you could call a black person.

Well one day at gym class, the boys were playing football. There was one young boy who always liked to bully me; he was a head shorter than me and the only reason I did not set him straight was because I was afraid of being suspended, but nevertheless, he was relentless. After this particular gym period he was once again in my face, challenging me to fight him. A crowd started to form and I had become scared and annoyed. The boy was performing for his group of friends at this point and threatened to have everyone jump me. He declared to those present, some of which were my friends, “We blacks stick together.” To which I responded, “You mean ya’ll niggers stick together.” Yep. That’s what I decided to say. Amazingly, I did not receive a beating, but I think it was because of the shock it caused. I did catch some heat as rumors were spread around, but no friends were lost.

Now I hope it is clear why I said this. I was not calling the other boys the N-word. I was mocking them for their use of the word. That was my intention although it was probably the stupidest thing I have ever said. What is ironic is that I did not realize how this statement of mine could have been taken by a group of young black boys till many years after the event. I always just assumed it was taken as an insult directed at the casual use of the word by African-Americans. A big reason for this was I did not see myself as different from the other kids although this was sort of the beginning of my cultural awareness. When I was eleven I saw all of us as a single group of people and so I felt comfortable calling someone out for something I did not understand or felt uncomfortable with. Most likely my escape from the situation without a scratch testifies to the fact that my peers felt the same way. Still, I wish I could have those words back.