My husband and I were in a hardware store trying to have some keys copies. There was an elderly white man behind the counter, along with a younger black woman. The other customers were all black. One, went down an aisle, out of my sight, began talking loudly on his cell phone. In the places where I might use the words “guy”, “person” or “dude,” he was using the word “nigger.”
The word “nigger” makes me extremely uncomfortable. I tense up when I hear the word. My forehead pinches, and my stomach tenses. It’s a fear response. I was raised to believe that word “nigger” must never be uttered out loud. I was raised to believe that “nigger”—like “kike” or “gook”—is a fighting word. I still believe that the word “nigger” is used to dehumanize black people, to suggest that they deserve violence. To me, the very word “nigger” is an act of violence—or rather, I have a hard time believing that the word “nigger” is not either the encouragement and the prelude to violence. As I was stuck in this enclosed space, with the word “nigger” being tossed around, my feelings were roughly what they would be were this man to have defecated on the floor. I know I’m not in danger, but he’s fouling the air. I’m shocked. I’m shamed. I wasn’t scared in a direct way. It was mid afternoon. He didn’t seem belligerent, just loud. I knew that I wasn’t in danger, but still, I couldn’t turn off the fear or the shame. I wonder if the woman and the man behind the counter feel the way that I do. They’re faces show nothing, but if I was successful, my face also showed nothing.
So what should I have done? Ask him to stop using the word “nigger”? Perhaps if I had we would have discussed the word, and how we each view it differently. He might have told me of how he grew up using the word and how my perspective is a very white perspective, and that can only think of black people in terms of how white people view them. Or he might just have seen me as one more white person telling him what to do. I tend to the think that if I had approached him his response to me would have been violent. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to separate the word “nigger” and violence, and even if he seems to intend no harm, it still scares me. I don’t regret not asking him not to use the word. I’m quite sure it wasn’t my place to correct him. And yet I’m not sure what my place was. Or is.
There’s another reasons that I’m silent, that I work out my thoughts on paper, and not with the people that I’m writing about. I’ve learned not to talk in my neighborhood. At least not on the street. One night as I was waiting to pick up Chinese food, I called my little brother on my cell phone. I stepped outside the restaurant (take out place), considering it rude to talk on a cell phone inside an eatery. As someone passed me, he began to yell about “faggots taking over the neighborhood and talking on the street.” I told my little brother that I was being called a faggot, and could he please wait a moment, thinking that the person had passed, but he instead began to respond to my comment. I retreated inside the restaurant, noting the security camera. He didn’t follow me in.
I am consistently mistaken for a woman on the phone. When I tell my friends this, they don’t believe me. They think that I’m overdoing it, that I’m insisting on being more of a sissy than I am. But it’s true—I am a sissy. Always have been. And I’ve never really been ashamed of it. I used to feel bad for my Boy Scout leaders who considered calling us boy scouts “girls” as an insult. I’ve never thought that there was anything wrong with being a girl, and it seemed a signal that they were boorish and chauvinistic—not that there was anything wrong with me. But I do have a swishy walk, a high voice, and whatever they may be, feminine speech intonations.
One Halloween, I wore a halo all day, and when I began to talk to some girls on the street (or they began to talk to me—wearing a costume halo is actually quite a conversation starter), some teenage boys within the vicinity hearing me talk began to discuss the fact that I was a faggot.
But even without talking, I often stand out to the people around me as a “faggot.” In the worst incident, two teenagers followed my husband and me home, and threw a beer bottle at us—shattering our front light just above our heads. But far more often, the name calling feels anthropological—almost like bird watching—the sighting of the famed “white homosexual” within his native habitat, or more to the point, in their native habitat. There have been people who asked, with an almost incredulous voice “Are you gay?” in a tone that suggested the desire for interaction and conversation. I never slow down though. I just keep walking.
I don’t know what my place is. I carefully structured a life where I could be the sissy that I am and be accepted. I didn’t go into business or law—I went into literature and writing. I moved to New York City. And yet, here I am, getting called a faggot more than I ever did in High School. I’ve learned a rule of thumb. The less cute I think I look, the less likely I am to be called a “faggot.” So I try not to leave the house looking cute. But do the people around me feel safe? I tend to think not.
In our neighborhood, I’m more active and connected to my neighbors than I have ever been. My husband writes the newsletter for our block association; I’m the secretary. Our block association wins awards. We have planting parties, block parties, and story time. We’ve earned grants. I’ve attended community board meetings. Far more than in our comfy Manhattan apartment, we take an interest in what happens. And here, where we know who owns which houses, and who does what, there’s a much greater chance of actually changing things or having a say. Some of it is motivated by a desire to change the neighborhood, to remake it in our middle class image, but it’s also genuinely nice to know people.
But part of our community’s closeness is in response to how bad things are. We’ve had three murders nearby this year. One of our neighbors heard shots and went to provide medical help when a sixteen year old was shot nearby. Two years ago, a murder victim was brought to our block and set on fire (he was murdered elsewhere, but burned on our block) in front of a vacant house, since purchased. When I walk down the street and hear the word “nigger” or “faggot,” I’m hearing them in a violent place, a place were people are killed and where bodies are mutilated. The violence brings me back to the idea that these words are about a devaluation of the person being described, about making them less than human.
The word “nigger” circulates in our culture endlessly. In the literature courses I teach, the word is inescapable. I’ve always wanted to teach Flannery O’Connor’s “The Artificial Nigger”—but I’ve never wanted the word on my syllabus. I can keep it off the syllabus, if not out of the stories. But I don’t want to clean up American literature. I think that it should be messy and violent, reflecting the mess and violence of our culture. I want to talk about it.
In my new proximities to the words “nigger” and “faggot,” I can’t help but feel them shifting their ground (“heteroglossia,” the literary theorists call it). I would still swear that the words both suggest the appropriateness of violence. They both suggest that the person being called the name deserves to be beaten or killed or punished. And yet, they can’t mean that all the time, nor would removing the words make the world safer for black people or gay people. The first time I heard the word “faggot” being used as an actual attack was in college. Two guys from the eighth floor wanted to beat up a gay guy down the hall. They poured bleach under his door to “smoke” him out, and when that didn’t work, they began slamming a large metal trash can into his door. Throughout this, they were shouting “Get out here faggot, we’re gonna beat your ass.” I don’t think that it would have made any difference had they called him “gay” or a “homosexual”—and in fact, it was being so vocal about their plans that spurred other people to call the RA, who broke up the situation. (In retrospect, it was the cops that should have been called.) The first time that I heard that word “nigger” in use as an actual epithet was when my Boy Scout leader reprimanded me for listening to “nigger music.” But when it happened I was glad to be implicated—if I was to be confronted by racism, I didn’t want to be outside of it. And I was in no danger.
Now that I hear the word “nigger” with such frequency (mostly overheard—only once has a black person that I’m friends with ever used the word “nigger” to mean “person”—and the “nigger” he was referring to was a white skateboarder on televison), I associate the word less with violence, and more with cultural specificity. This is the local dialect of my neighborhood—and dialect in which I will never attempt or desire fluency. But part of that cultural specificity is a danger that no one here is immune to.
Sometimes I wonder if I’m too sensitive to “faggot.” It upsets me for a day or two, making me despondent and depressed and scared. But I’m not naïve enough to take the risks entailed in finding out. I’d love to stop and ask what it means to them for me to be a faggot. Do they object on religious grounds? Are they curious? Do they want a blow job? Are they excited to see someone lower down on the American totem pole of difference? Sometimes I’m tempted to respond with an insult of my own. To the question “Are you gay?” I almost once responded, “Your mother didn’t think so last night.” But then I read about someone who did that and got stabbed to death. The problem is that I can’t read how much danger I’m in. When people call me a faggot, it may be an accusation or a provocation, or it may be that they don’t know any other word for it. If I could accurately determine the place from which they spoke, I could calibrate my response far beyond fear and hiding.
When I began by asking what my place is, I was quite serious—because all of these questions have to do with where one stands. When the man on the street complained of my presence, it was a historical concern. He was claiming his place in the neighborhood, refusing my place. When the man on the cell phone used the word “nigger” he was asserting his place as one who had the right to use it. I was uncomfortable because I believe that I don’t have the right to use that word (at least not in the context of everyday speech—I wouldn’t care to count the number of times I’ve used the “n word” in this essay.
The question of how words pass back and forth through the permeable membrane that separates hate speech from regular speech is neither simple nor unimportant. It seems to me that we tend to abdicate the difficulty of those conversations by resorting to simple maxims, like no-one-should-ever-say-“nigger” (Really? Not even in a play? Not even in court repeating what someone said?). Or overly simplistic formulations, like black-artists-can-use-it-but-not-white-artists. Randall Kennedy has written compellingly about the difficulty of disentangling the word “nigger” from its speakers and contexts.
I write this in extreme discomfort. Three or four years ago, I thought that I had built a life where I would never have to encounter such blatant homophobia, or have to hear words like “nigger” outside of rap collection. In other words, I thought that I was in control—that I had mastered the wells of hate and violence that permeate our culture. But having moved to my new home has changed that. I have less control than I would like; I feel knocked down a peg. It’s going to take me a long time to sort it all out. But I’m starting now. I’m trying.