In many parts of the south the n-word is thrown around like a casual joke, but there is nothing funny about it.
My Facebook feed has been making me cry a lot lately. Crying has never come easily for me as I’m usually a man with understated emotions at best. It started with the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, a tragedy that struck way too close to home as one of my own friends was killed in the massacre. Gun violence had never really entered my personal life before that, but now my eyes have been opened. The LGBT community, as well as the black community are both targets of discrimination, the kind of discrimination that puts targets on our backs and puts guns in the hands of bigoted people that are more than willing to pull the trigger.
From the brutal murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by police officers, to the five police officers gunned down at a peaceful demonstration in Dallas, to the body of a black man found hanging in Piedmont Park in Atlanta– gun violence, racism, and hatred are at an all time high in this country. Maybe it’s just the fast-moving media that has made us so much more aware, but it feels like we’re spiraling out of control into a place of hate, division, and anger. Movements like #BlackLivesMatter are directly opposed by #AllLivesMatter, and at a time when we should be pulling together, we are pushing ourselves farther apart. I don’t know what to do about any of this. I am desperate to be unified with my friends of all colors, faiths, sizes, shapes, and lifestyles.
At first, just like with the Orlando shooting, I didn’t want to say anything. I was scared of overstepping– is it my place to comment on the black American struggle? Maybe not, but it’s something I can at least sort of understand because I, too, am a brown-skinned minority. I was scared it wasn’t my place, but then I remembered the conclusion I came to the day after Orlando, when tears were streaming down my face. If I don’t stand up and say something, who will? If it isn’t my place, whose is it? As an American (born to a Malaysian immigrant mother), and gay man who surrounds himself with mostly Jews (another minority with targets on their backs), and a member of a community that has long faced discrimination and long since fought it, it IS my place to stand with the black community. If my words can make a shred of difference, then it is my duty to share them. My words are my weapons for change, for peace, for understanding, and hopefully unity across all the different groups (yes, including straight white men) in this country.
Discrimination exists with such prevalence in this country because of hatred. Hatred exists because we not only allow it, but we perpetuate it. We perpetuate it by not standing up for the things that are wrong, and for teaching our children to turn a blind eye when the problem isn’t in your back yard. One of the ways we do this, especially in the south, is by throwing around words like f*ggot and n*gger without thinking about what they actually mean. I edited out these words because nevermind saying them audibly, I don’t want to even write them. They are, to me, the kinds of ‘cuss words that literally curse– they curse people to unfair sentences of being less than, of not being included, sadness, and anger.
I love the south, though. I grew up in a mixed-race single parent household in a small town in Northern Florida, which is basically Alabama, which is about as ‘south’ as you can get. As far back as I can remember, the n-word was part of everyday vernacular. You heard the n-word in the supermarket, in the street, I’ve heard mothers say it in front of their children, and most recently I heard a teenager from my hometown drop the n-word in every other sentence. In the south, the word n*gger is thought to be no big deal. It is a joke, meant to end a sentence, or describe something that you don’t like. It is an afterthought– a word people use without thinking. I grew up believing this word was no big deal. I grew up using it, too. My justification was always that words only have the power that we give them, so if the words n*gger and f*ggot were used jokingly, then eventually they would lose their power. I was absolutely wrong. As I write this article I can tell you I have learned that WORDS.HAVE.POWER.
It wasn’t until I moved to New York that I realized how wrong it was to use the n-word. In the south you are surrounded by it, so much so that you don’t even realize what you are doing is racist because everyone else is doing it too. You’re even oppressing yourself. Imagine me, a gay brown man, calling anyone a f*ggot or n*gger. Where was my mind? Why was that okay — and not just for me, but for everyone around me? Stepping out of that world and into one where I am constantly thrust into new situations with new kinds of people has given me a broader outlook. My mind has been opened, and I feel it is my duty to try and open yours. Because the word n*gger, the dreaded n-word, is not just a word. It’s a literal and figurative curse, and I beg everyone to stop using it.
Using the n-word even casually means that you are perpetuating the hatred and fear behind the bullets that stole Alton Sterling’s life, a man who was just trying to feed his children. When you catch yourself saying it, I want you to think about the way his hand twitched as blood pooled on his chest, and remember there was no gun in his hand. Using the n-word, even as a joke, means you are supporting the bigoted police officer who acted out of fear and shot Philando Castile several times when his daughter was in the back seat. That little girl will grow up without a father, because of fear, and a hatred borne from a simple word. A word that is too often just used as a joke.
I want to be extremely clear here, though — this is not an attack on police officers. My heart breaks for the police who lost their lives in Dallas last night. Violence is never the answer, just look where it’s gotten us so far. Police have done great things for many people, including me, but like every other group of humans there are mostly good eggs and a few bad ones. We need to do our best as a culture to create a world that makes the bad eggs nearly impossible to thrive in. We need to be a place where love, kindness, and empathy are rewarded.
The n-word isn’t just a word. It’s manifestation of the racism that has plagued our country, especially in the south, for far too long. Every time it comes out of your mouth it plants another seed in the mind of those around you– a seed that eventually sprouts into diving one group from another, even on a minor level. It’s a seed that reminds you or them that you’re somehow different, but are you really that different? A seed that sometimes grows into something malignant and ugly; the kind of hatred that took the lives of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the COUNTLESS others that this has happened to over the years, tragedies that never saw the light of day, because of corruption, and the lack of our ability to fight back by recording and sharing our heartbreaking stories.
Many people are up in arms about the #BlackLivesMatter movement. In response, people have been posting #AllLivesMatter, even going so far as to suggest that it is reverse racism. The back and forth on this issue just seems to further divide us, when in reality #BlackLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter mean the same damn thing. A human is a human. Every single one of us, whether we are black or white or something in between, gay or straight, trans, handicapped, overweight, atheist or spiritual, deserves to live our lives free of fear, free of persecution, and free of hatred. We all deserve to live our lives FREE. That is supposed to be what this country stands for. As our nation progresses, I think we are all seeing just how far we have to go.
Growing up in the south, especially as a gay man, I know firsthand that racism and discrimination are alive and well in this country. This has to stop. While it is abundantly clear that all lives matter, #BlackLivesMatter right now, because African Americans are fighting for their right to exist on an equal basis in this country without targets on their backs. So I’m asking you to delete the n-word from your vocabulary. Every time you catch yourself saying it, think about how many lives have been taken or harmed, and how many more are damaged each day because of racism. Think about the children that grow up without parents, and even more heart-wrenching… the parents that have to live on without their children.
These aren’t n*ggers or African Americans, or black people. They are people, just like you. And their lives are just as valuable as yours.
So I’m writing this letter to the south, to a place that I will always call home, to try and create a positive change, however small. Bigotry, racism, and any and all discrimination all boils down to hatred. Hatred is spread from generation to generation through words. And as I said before, words have power.
Please choose yours wisely.