Like everyone I know, I will always remember the first time I was called the "N" word. It's hard to understand if you're not black in this country. But for us, it's almost like a unifying thread. It's what keeps us apart and it's something that we as a people have all shared. The reason why the pain cuts so deep among us, is because it's always unexpectedly uttered by someone whom we trust and believe to be our friends.
For me, at the time it was said, it's meaning my not have been totally clear, I was too young and innocent to understand, but it was clearly understood by the one who said it. My isolation was immediate, and my reaction was a complete understanding of my differences and my peoples history. And that was what was intended.
It's a common theme among my friends and family, and the memory of it is so vivid, that it stays with us throughout our very lives. That word, that terrible word used as a weapon, haunts even the best and brightest of us. Showing us that we indeed are still seperate and less than in the eyes of the speaker, no matter how far we've come, or how much we want to refuse to believe it. There is no other word which brings up such vivid images to all who hear it. And when heard by both the speaker and the hearer, it's meaning is all too clear. We are not the same as human beings, there is a difference, an envy, a hatred, a history, a hidden privilege, and a hidden shame.
It happened to me in the 6th grade at my Catholic mostly white grade school gym class. I was one of only 2 black girls attending at the time. I was playing tether ball with whom I thought was a very good friend Martha. I was winning of course, I was very athletic back then. It was 1969 smack dab in the middle of the civil rights era. I'd seen all the protest on TV and I even remember a few rallies which were held in the neighborhood in little Kalamazoo, Mi. But I was so into school and I hadn't encountered any personal hatred or bigotry thrown at me thus far. I had a lot of white friends at the school. I was a cheerleader, I was in a few talent shows and musicals, I was on the softball and basketball teams. Life was pretty good for me.
Then, on this particular day, it happened. I'd scored another victory over Martha and I was jumping up and down celebrating surrounded by a few others who had been watching. All of a sudden...
"Of course you won. You Niggers were bred to be stronger than us. The Nigger thinks she's somebody just because she won a stupid game."
It hit me like a brick. I stopped dead in my tracks and looked around. No one came to my rescue, all eyes were on me, some with humor, some with a dare for me to respond, some with expectation hoping that I'd react with violence. But none in defense, none with caring or empathy, none with understanding. I dropped the racket and ran quickly to the locker room. No one followed. I felt shame, fear, hatred, and alone all at the same time. There was no apology, no support, no help. Not even from the gym teacher, Mrs. Maltby. She never came in to say a word. I don't even think she knew until later, but she never approached me, no staff member ever did.
During the rest of that school day, I was silent and withdrawn. Of course everyone had heard what had happened but not one person stepped up to me acknowledging my pain. They all stared at me, but I couldn't even look my fellow students in the eye, and I felt that it was somehow my fault. That I was to blame for the awkwardness surrounding me. The I was somehow guilty of placing this wall between me and my friends.
There was one other black girl in the 7th grade. She'd heard what happened and came up to me in the hall just after our last class for the day. She hugged me and walked me out to the bus stop. Both of us knew deep down inside that we were alone in this. Both of us had been effected even though she was no where around when it happened. Both of us felt the division and both of us knew that nothing would be the same. When I went home, I didn't tell my family. I kept the pain inside not knowing how to express it. Feeling guilty and not knowing why.
Eventually things died down. I continued to of course go to school, but I wasn't as animated and cheerful as I was before. I'd changed and my fellow classmates noticed the difference. It took a couple of months for them to feel comfortable around me again, but still, we never grew as close as we'd been before the "N" word was said. Martha never associated with me again. She stayed with her group and I stayed with mine. I was still pretty popular because I had musical and athletic talent and she was into the school paper, so we didn't mingle.
From then on, I never really let my guard down among my white friends. That invisible wall stays up even to this very day. I can't help it. I've been called the "N" word several times since then, but somehow it's not quite as painful, even when coming from a so called friend. But it's not as surprising because of the wall I'd constructed after the first time. It's true for each of us as a people. That wall will be there until we finally find a way to tear it down. But so far, our white brothers and sisters won't allow that to happen. There's privilege on the other side of that wall. Something which cannot be given up, not yet.
Allison C Whitfield, author of "The Shelter of the Shade Tree", is a Freelance writer who creates articles describing the unconventional for those who wish to explore new ideas and new challenges. She has had 30 + years of experience in Office Administration and Customer Service. She is also a [...]