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But I Have a Black Friend

By Noah Neal

Illustration by Dominique Coleman

Illustration by Dominique Coleman

“Hey Noah, can I say it?”

Many of my white friends over the years would ask me this question and, frankly, I never knew what to say.

My father would always lecture me on the usage of the word “nigga” and my friends would always ask me how I felt about them using it. I finally asked myself how I felt about it and realized that solely researching this question and basing my opinion on others was not how I was going to arrive to a conclusion. Instead, my personal experiences with how humans treat each other answered this question that many people had a very easy answer to. For some reason I never did.

I am 14 years old, laying in my bed listening to rap music that is filled with curse word after curse word when my father yells for me to come downstairs. I always grow incredibly anxious whenever he yells for me. My heart hits a little harder, my palms become a little more clammy and my mind begins racing with the question of “What did I do wrong?” I bounce out from under my gray sheets and walk down the carpeted stairs with my bare feet, until they land on the cold laminate floor of the foyer. I glance over to the television to see the movie 42 playing: a film about Jackie Robinson’s experience as the first black professional baseball player.

I move my attention back to my father where he possesses a face full of concern. “Do you let your white friends say nigga?” What my father believed, and what he taught me, was to never let anyone who was not black say the n-word or any variance of it. Ordering me to sit down on the couch, my father advised me about how the real world would treat me. How people would not always be bold enough to confront me directly with racism, but I would feel the discrimination when it came around. As he lectured me constantly about the sacredness of this word, I would listen to him, but never completely agree. To me, it was not a big deal if anybody said “nigga.” It never mattered.

My justification for my opinion was that my friends never used it to degrade me or anyone else. My white friends would call each other niggas, call me a nigga, and I would call them niggas. They obviously weren’t racist; I mean… they were my friends, right?

Over the course of our summers, we would spend all of our time in one of my best friend’s attic. Every day at noon it would be ridiculously hot; the only resources we had to cool off were the cans of Arizona green tea we kept fully stocked in the mini fridge and a metal fan that sat in a corner and failed to oscillate. During one of these summer days, music would be blaring loud enough to rattle the rest of the house, even though we were stationed in only one room.

Eventually, a rap song would shuffle on and a few of my white friends would say, “Noah, can I say it?” and I really didn’t care if they did. Besides, if I said they couldn’t say it, then they would just say it when they weren’t around me. I believed that not using the word gave it more power; if people treated it like every other word then it would be just like any other word.

The only problem is that it is not like every other word. I felt that racism was not as prevalent as my father made it out to be. Growing up around mostly white people, you begin to see yourself as just a person, not a black person. When you have not had many experiences with racism, it is incredibly easy to pretend it does not exist, even for a person of color. One cannot research how it feels to be demonized, belittled, and brainwashed.

Then you notice how the teacher is surprised that you articulate your words and that you are so “well behaved” ー you know, like a dog. You go shopping at a store and the clerk keeps asking you if you are “finding everything alright” every five minutes while keeping an eye on you at all times.

One night an officer lights you and your white friend up for walking in the park. He asks for both of your licenses and returns to his vehicle to run them through the system. While standing there, watching the red and blue lights collide to form an ominous purple hue, it seems to get colder, but your hands just get hotter and more clammy. You can’t put them in your pockets because then you might look like you are reaching for something. Then you look at your friend who is wearing a baseball cap and is too calm for the situation that you both are in. He tries to crack jokes with you because he sees you are uncomfortable.

You realize that although this racism is not terribly abrasive or direct, it’s there and you can just feel it, almost like a paranormal experience. People notice these microaggressions and rarely stand up against them. Most white people will appreciate the culture that the black community has created, but will not accept or even merely acknowledge the marginalization that black people face in their day to day lives.

If you are not black or African American then you should not use the word “nigga” under any circumstances. That word has only ever been used to make humans seem as if they are less than what they are.

Black people were enslaved and discriminated against on the same land that we continue to live on. There has been a stigma placed on black folks and African Americans ever since we were forced onto boats.We are still fighting against it. I do not care if you have a black friend, listen to rap, or voted for Barack Obama twice – if you truly support the black community then you would understand the amount of hatred the word “nigga” breeds.

 

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