As a middle-aged African-American woman, I thought nothing could surprise me anymore when it comes to racial insensitivity. I was wrong. Something happened the other day that knocked me for a loop.
I was standing in a lane at a Target store, making conversation with a 70-something woman and her daughter. I asked the older woman whether it was still raining, to which she replied. “Yes, it’s raining (n-word) babies out there!”
Stunned, I asked, “What did you say?” She looked puzzled and said, “What? What did I say? What?”
Daughter flushed to the roots
By this time the younger woman had flushed beet-red to the roots of her hair. Head down, she said, “That comment you made, Mom.”
Mom still didn’t understand, repeating again and again, “What? What?”
Then she looked me squarely in the face and the light dawned. “Ohhhhh. Me and my big mouth,” she said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it.”
And you know what? I believed her.
That’s what is so distressing. That idiom (one I’d never heard, by the way) was so ingrained that she never thought a thing about using it, even in my presence.
I told her I understood that some in her generation probably grew up with the n-word as part of their vocabulary, but I didn’t appreciate her using it. It’s a hurtful thing. I accepted her apology on the condition that she think before speaking, and never use that word again.
The whole incident is reminiscent of a short poem called “The Incident” by Harlem Renaissance poet Count’ee Cullen.
Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart filled, head filled with glee;
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.
Now I was eight and very small
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue and called me “Nigger.”
I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.
Here we are on the likely eve of a black candidate for president of the United States and such incidents still occur. What does that tell us?
“It’s the kind of thing we talk about a lot in my classes,” said Gabrielle Civil, associate professor of English, women’s studies and critical studies of race and ethnicity at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul.
So long ago it was unthinking
“You were having a pleasant conversation and she made a comment that was an example of thoughtless, unconscious racism. That it insinuates itself into the language is so telling.”
I don’t for a minute think the woman is consciously racist. In fact, she’d probably be hurt if characterized as such. But she learned the expression so long ago that it’s something she just held on to.
It has to do with social “location,” Civil says. “The whole world she’s living in is so different from the one you’re living in or even the one her daughter’s living in.”
I hope, having been called on her figure of speech, this woman will come into the world her daughter and I share.