Kate Stein is a junior at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. She’s currently combining her passions for Spanish and community service through a bilingual reporting class with the Medill School of Journalism,. After graduation, Kate hopes to pursue a reporting career focused on drawing attention to education inequality and poverty.

Gray Areas

The Language of Race Relations Isn’t Always Black and White


December 2014

BY KATE STEIN

I don’t understand race relations.

I did, at one point. I recognized that slavery and Jim Crow segregation laws and Ku Klux Klan attacks were manifestations of racism against blacks. I knew that Japanese internment camps and “No Irish Need Apply” signs, although relatively short-lived, were still significant examples of racism in America. So, I understand the deplorable state of race relations in the past. But as I realized one day recently, while at work with a white boss and a black co-worker in a bakery in northern Wisconsin, I clearly don’t understand race relations today.

“If you have any questions,” said my boss, Stacey, as she prepared to leave the bakery at the end of her shift, “just ask the head nigger in charge.”

Prior to this moment, Stacey had always struck me as a nice, well-adjusted person. Currently in her mid-twenties, she wants to be a writer and a teacher, and recently began commuting an hour each way to college in pursuit of those goals. So when she used the phrase “head nigger in charge” this particular morning, I was shocked. I hadn’t ever linked Stacey with racism, and never would have expected her to say anything so…well…I would never have expected her to say the word “nigger.”

Stacey was referring to Dave, a black man in his early 60s who organizes trays of bread to be baked. All three of us were in the bakery at the time, and as far as I could tell, Stacey was speaking loudly enough for Dave to hear her. Dave stood around the corner, out of my sight, pulling bread from the freezer, while I packed hot dog buns into bags, so I didn’t see his reaction. But for me, “nigger” hung in the air as if it were suspended from the ceiling.

After a dumbfounded minute (in which Stacey and Dave kept working as if nothing unusual had happened), I decided Stacey’s comment  had been a tasteless joke. But I bit back a comment about political incorrectness because I didn’t know what to think. How could Stacey say something so blatantly racist? Why would Dave let the comment pass? Was he secretly offended, but too intimidated by his boss to make a complaint?

I was too disconcerted by Stacey’s comment to let it go. So, once she left the bakery, I approached Dave to find out if “head nigger in charge” was some sort of an inside joke between close friends, or a comment he found offensive. Walking towards the freezer, I was genuinely curious.

But I also feared Dave would see me as a well-intentioned but ignorant “missionary of equality”—that he’d think it was none of my business to preach my thoughts about appropriate race relations.

“Dave,” I hesitantly asked him, “When Stacey called you the ‘head nigger in charge,’ did that bother you?”

Dave smiled at my question, and I wasn’t sure why. Was he happily relieved that someone was finally paying attention to flagrant workplace racism? Or was he amused at my concern?

“It’s just a joke,” he said, still smiling.

And he continued smiling as he repeated that claim, saying “Head Nigger in Charge” was from a movie (from Lean On Me, released in 1989). Dave seemed to embrace the moniker, saying it had followed him from job to job, and that at one point he’d sported a pin emblazoned with the “HNIC” acronym.

After a few minutes, we said our goodbyes and I left the bakery with more questions than answers. I couldn’t tell from our conversation if Dave’s smile was relieved, amused or knowing. Was he happy that I was concerned, but resigned to the fact that I, like all his (all non-black) co-workers, wouldn’t take a stand against the language Stacey used?

I decided I would simply accept his explanation—that he wasn’t offended, and that in his and Stacey’s relationship, using “nigger” is acceptable.

Yet all my life I’ve been told, “Don’t use the n-word.” Even now, typing “nigger” makes me cringe. And I can’t help but wonder whether Dave and Stacey unintentionally perpetuate racism by using the word in a friendly context.

During my freshman year of college, I took a Latino Studies class in which the professor, (an expert in both Latino and African American Studies, and of Latino and African-American descent himself), argued that most racism today comes not from a sense of white superiority, but from a notion that non-whites are somehow “others” who require special attention and privileges to reach the same status as whites in America. Following this logic, affirmative action is racist because it implies that, without additional help, non-whites are incapable of achieving the same success in the U.S. that white Americans are able to achieve.

My professor’s argument came to this: even if a seemingly constructive action is well intentioned, it can make a person feel deficient compared to others—and therefore, different from them.

This logic could imply that “nigger” is a dangerous manifestation of racism not because it conjures up days of slavery, lynch mobs and bus burnings, but because it promotes otherness and therefore inequality. That is, whites can’t be niggers. Asians aren’t niggers. Only blacks can be niggers—and so, this logic argues, the segregation and the racism remain.

The fact of the matter though, is that “nigger” stems from a time when blacks were segregated, enslaved, tortured and killed solely because of their skin color. It seems to me that saying “nigger” today—no matter who you are—is a reference to a brutal, shameful period of human history, no matter your intentions in using the word.

Following that train of though then, the mere utterance (no matter the intention of the use) of “nigger” implies complicity with discrimination, hatred, and violence against people on the basis of their skin color. And when anyone uses the word “nigger” to try to “reclaim” it or to show it’s no more powerful than any other word, that word actually becomes more powerful than other words—because it requires a special effort to show that it’s the same.

Plain and simple, I’m not okay with Stacey and Dave using the word “nigger,” even in a friendly context. In fact, when people use the word in everyday conversation without a second thought (as I think Stacey and Dave did), or even when people “soften” the word into  “nigga” (changing the “er” to an “a”), I still believe that they’re perpetuating racism.

So, I’m clear on how I feel about use of the n-word. But what about the broader question of whether people without malicious intentions can perpetuate racism because of the words they use?

One recent summer night, at the same time I was working at the bakery, my white Christian upper-middle-class relatives and I gathered for dinner during our annual family vacation. In the course of the pre-dinner conversation, my grandmother made the comment that something trivial (I don’t remember what) hadn’t happened “in a coon’s age.”

Her son (my uncle) was taken aback. He couldn’t believe anyone would ever dare use the expression “in a coon’s age” in the 21st century.

“No one uses that,” he declared. “It’s racist.”

Debate ensued. My grandmother proclaimed that she’d been using the expression for 76 years and that no one had ever before told her the expression was offensive. My uncle explained that while the expression might have been socially accepted among some people for many of those 76 years, no one uses it now because “coon” actually refers to a black person, and “coon’s age” refers to the unknown birthdate of a slave.

“It’s racist!” he repeated, both annoyed and amused at his mother’s apparent ignorance.

My father intervened by searching the term on Google. On the website StraightDope.com, he found the following: “It actually refers to raccoons. The expression ‘in a coon’s age’ dates to the early 1800s, and to the folk belief that raccoons are long-lived.”

Problem solved, right? Wrong. Straightdope went on to explain that a raccoon’s black “eye mask” and nocturnal habits evoke images of stealing. And stealing has become one of the “negative stereotypes…applied to black people,” Straightdope writes. “Hence the derogatory term ‘coon’…the usage is highly offensive today.”

If you believe Straightdope, “in a coon’s age” didn’t originate as something offensive, but it’s evolved into something that can be perceived as racist. So, technically, you wouldn’t be racist if you used the phrase as my grandmother did—in a non-malicious way, talking about something unrelated to race. But other people might perceive you as racist because of the way the phrase has evolved.

And this is why race relations perplex me.

When Stacey used a word with clearly racist origins, she did so in a context that (to her and Dave at least) made the word perfectly acceptable. But when my grandmother used a phrase that doesn’t have racist origins, my uncle and the Internet decried her usage of the phrase as racist.

Then, there’s my professor, who argues that affirmative action, an institution created to prevent racism, actually perpetuates it.

And, there are people who will say that I, a white woman, have no right to say that everyone should stop using “nigger” or “nigga”—even though I argue against the word’s use out of concern for human dignity and because it impedes the race relations conversation.

Maybe this was obvious to everyone except me, but there’s not much about race relations that’s black and white.

In fact, just color me confused.

Kate Stein can be reached at katherinestein2016@u.northwestern.edu

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