Editor’s note: This piece references a racial slur, which may be disturbing to some readers.
The first time I was called a nigger by a white person I was 5 years old.
It was following church. Our “progressive” multicultural church, First Church of Religious Science, had a playground out back. After service, kids would dart to play on the many apparatuses, including the favorite: a zip line attached by two trees. When it was my turn to go, a child not much older than me told me, “Get out the way nigger.” I didn’t fully understand what a nigger was, but I knew I didn’t want to be one.
Sadly, that wasn’t the last time I would be called a nigger by a white person. It would happen more than I care to remember. But the most recent time resonates differently. See, the most recent time had with it a more ominous tone (as if being called a nigger is somehow never ominous). This time it came with an implied threat of violence … of death.
On June 28 in our Community Voices email that I monitor as the editor of that section, the following message was sent: “The state except for in the twin cities is Republican because people who live outside of city have common sense unlike you fucking niggers who think money is free I HOPE SOMEBODY KILLS YOUR FAMILY”
“I hope somebody kills your family.”
I have received racist hate mail before. I received them at Insight News when I was reporting on the killings of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile. I received them at North News covering the murder and uprisings when Derek Chauvin snuffed the life out of George Floyd. I received several emails of hate following my commentary on the students of the University of Minnesota-Morris being called “too diverse” by a university regent. We’ve had to monitor our comments section on several stories written by myself and others when covering issues of social injustice and policing. On occasion, we’ve turned off commenting completely.
But this hateful message hit me differently.
“I hope somebody kills your family.”
This one cut to the core.
Threats against journalists are at an alarmingly high rate
Journalism was once revered as one of the noblest professions, but journalists today are somehow viewed as pariahs. That changing climate in American politics and increasing threats and actual violence against journalists can be traced back to 2008 and the election of the nation’s first recognized Black president, Barack Obama (several scholars argue Obama was not the first Black president, but the first openly identifiable Black president). Those threats increased precipitously with the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Trump himself verbally attacked several members of the media, most infamously esteemed White House reporter April Ryan, who, like me, is Black. Ryan was forced to employ personal security following an onslaught of death threats.
Again, threats against all journalists are on the rise, but threats against Black journalists have as much — or more — to do with the journalists’ ethnicity as with their profession. All it takes is the mentioning of certain buzzwords for the yahoos to surface. Woke, critical race theory, police violence against Blacks, Kaepernick … mention any and you’re inviting trouble. And most Black journalists do not publicly report the threats for fear of reprisals. I contemplated long and hard about penning this piece for that same reason. The words continue to ring in my head: “I hope somebody kills your family.”
It’s often hard for me to discuss the vile email sent without tearing up. My tears are of both anger and hurt. But they are not of fear. That’s not to say I am unafraid. I take the threat with the seriousness it deserves, and I have taken the necessary precautions. With the assistance and support of our executive director, editor-in-chief and director of human resources, we have reported the threat to authorities. Previous messages of hate have been noted, but none rose to the level of the June 28 email.
Anyone who knows me knows that when I talk about my work as a journalist, I constantly speak of purpose. I sincerely feel I’m fulfilling my purpose with my work in this noble profession. I’m unapologetic in my work to better the conditions of Blacks and all people of marginalized conditions in America and around the world. For that cause, I will remain steadfast. I will not be deterred.
I will be cautious. Sadly, being cautious comes with the condition … the wonderful condition … of being Black. It’s a cross all Black people bear. In writing this, it is my hope that the overwhelming majority of those who read this — Black, white, whomever — begin to speak out fervently in their condemnation of bigotry and hatred. That’s the only way any of this will cease.
I was 5 years old the first time I was called nigger by a white person. I knew I didn’t want to be one. And I am not.