We’re eight miles from the Atlantic shoreline on US-192 eastbound through Melbourne from St. Cloud, a half hour into our ride with *Glenda. I’m taking the last sips of a Black Cherry IBC that she gave me; it’s her favorite. Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual is playing at low volume. The mid-afternoon sun is shining. This should be our last ride without ocean waves in sight before we finally re-enter Latin America and she’s been wonderfully kind to us in a motherly and friendly way. As the light changes to red and we ease to a safe stop, I’m thinking, “it doesn’t get much better than this.”
Out my window, the left window, the driver’s side window, a big purple Cadillac idles with two men in the front seat. A mural of their resting-in-peace friend is painted on the trunk which is lifted off the ground at an unnatural height above shiny waxed chrome rims. The woofers are thumping hip hop. If this were a movie scene, the beat would’ve stopped abruptly with the sound of a record scratching.
“Fuckin’ niggers, “ Glenda says with casual, lighthearted disdain.
We’ve been here before. Too many people pick us up and then, somewhere along the road, reveal their discriminatory underbelly. Sometimes they’re saying something vaguely anti-Semitic. In Canada the racism typically targeted Asian and First Nations people. Wherever ya go, the minority group (usually immigrants or descendants of a marginalized native population) varies, but the general problem is the same.
Our usual approach to the situation is a combination of asking Socratic questions and expressing our anti-racist sentiments while trying to understand what makes people continue to think and act this way.
“Look at ‘em,” she continued. “It’s disgusting.”
What was disgusting remained unclear to us. They preferred a different aesthetic, sure. But their car certainly guzzled no more gas than Glenda’s truck. We tried our usual incredulous approach. Asking what she meant, why she would say that, why she thought those were appropriate words and thoughts. She explained that there’s a difference between black people and niggers. That white people can be niggers too. Some halfhearted apologies were mixed in, citing her age and how she grew up and how she isn’t really racist. I’m sure she has a black friend. Or at least there’s a dark-skinned cashier with whom she exchanges routine pleasantries at the grocery store where she buys her IBC.
We’ve all heard the Chris Rock spiel and we’ve all witnessed its painful regurgitation by white non-comedians as if all of history and culture can be altered and such a term rendered a-ok because a black celebrity said that thing that one time.
We were nearing our destination drop-off point and our question-asking wasn’t going as productively as we’d hoped. She had, with some amount of consistency, stuck to the explanation that people can be niggers regardless of their skin color and that being a nigger was about how you presented yourself… you know, like a black does. And, oh boy, she loved saying that word.
“Okay then,” Adam finally replied with resignation. I don’t think any of us knew exactly where to go from there. Her argument wasn’t sound, but it was unclear how we could say anything that would truly stick. And hey, maybe her explanation was sufficient.
Except that it’s not.
Why? Because when she pulls up to a light with white people blaring Metallica in their Jeep, I doubt she says to herself, “those fuckin’ niggers.” And even if she does, it wouldn’t mean the same thing.
Why not? Because white people haven’t been referred to as niggers for centuries while being enslaved and then systematically oppressed – to this day – by a visibly different group of people with lighter skin who continue to benefit from, maintain, and promote white supremacy.
Sorry, but calling people niggers is racist. The word is racist. Using it as a joke is racist. When you say something you think might be racist and then follow it up with, “but I’m not racist,” you are, in fact, being racist.
When you start a statement with, “I’m not racist but…” you should probably cut yourself off because the second half of your statement will contradict its introduction.
If you’re reading this and thinking, “Am I racist?” then the answer is almost certainly yes.
We’re all products of a racist culture. We are all, to some degree, racist, try as we might to not be. It’s ingrained in our media, our economic and social structures, our geography – all aspects of our daily lives. We must work actively to fight the culturally rooted, institutionally promoted racism that leads to the aforementioned scenario – one which is, unfortunately, quite common for us on this trip. And in order to work actively to fight racism – something we must do personally, socially, and politically – we must understand how it is part of our lives.
It makes me sad that hitchhiking around North America is so much easier for me simply because I’m white. It’s no accident that a majority of the backpacking adventurers we meet and read about are white. White folks like us can do unusual things and be praised more and bothered less than our black and brown comrades. People don’t see three white people and reflexively react suspiciously the way they do with black people. Cops don’t arrest white people as often. And they don’t assault white people as often. White people are less likely to go to prison. White people are not profiled by border patrol and airport security as often. White people get paid more and harassed less.
Calling black people niggers is not okay. It’s not okay in public and it’s not okay in private. Please wake up and grow up. It’s 2014. You are not Chris Rock. You are racist.
from Indialantic, FL
*I changed her name for this story.