I had a failure in courage recently at a meeting of a community group where I play a co-facilitator role. Someone there directly quoted the author Ibram Kendi when he writes about the racist idea of “them niggers.” I did have a choice to object in that moment but I didn’t do it.
I knew the reading might bring some awkward, even racist, moments in our discussion. The material was tough. Kendi, an African American scholar of renown, was arguing in How To Be an Antiracist (2019) that Black people can also practice racism and elitism, just like White people. In this case, he was describing how an African American might differentiate himself from “them niggers.” The stereotype is of African Americans as misbehaving poor people, less educated, loud, sometimes criminal, generally less assimilated into White society. Kendi confesses his own racism and classism in holding that stereotype at one point in his life. He reminds us that it is racist to blame groups of people for the behaviors of individuals, especially when their poverty or run-ins with the law have made them actual victims of racist economic and political policy.
Not having rehearsed this difficult moment in the discussion, I unexpectedly froze when I heard the n-word said out loud. In a panic, my brain scrambled for ideas of how to right the tipping boat. I felt like a failure in letting something like that out into the air. The n-word is a “microassault” that inflicts intentional emotional violence on the victim (Sue & Constantine, 2007 p. 137) and evokes a long history of American obsession with and physical violence against Black people who have been held at the bottom rung of the racial hierarchy (Feagin, 2010 pp. 73-77). Such an assault should not happen in a dialogue on race.
My reaction in that discussion moment, sadly, is what sometimes happens to facilitators or teachers or even group participants, particularly White people, in moments of dialogue crisis (Sue, 2015, p. 231). The book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (DiAngelo, 2018) provides numerous examples of just such failures. But in every case, White fragility is a choice. In hindsight, I should have stepped in and provided a path to dialogue. I could have said, “Could you explain why you chose to use that term particularly, despite its taboos?” That would have communicated to the group that this should be a dialogue moment, when the facilitator does not “not allow a difficult dialogue to be brewed in silence” (Sue, 2015 p.240). Whatever the group member’s explanation, we all could have openly talked about the term, airing the emotion, history, etc. for antiracist purposes. It is often helpful, when person feels overwhelmed, to invite even more people into the conversation to provide additional perspectives. For example, a teacher, facilitator or group member could ask, “Does anyone know the history of that term?” Or “Has anyone else had a different experience with that term?”
One African American member of the group later told me he shrugged off the speaker’s use of the n-word because it had been used in the context of the book and was simply quoting the author. He didn’t find the moment offensive and felt others in the room probably didn’t either.
I was relieved to hear that, but I don’t feel I can make that call as a White person. Without calling out our group member, I think I will ask to revisit the term in a future group discussion and encourage the dialogue we should have had. All the Black people and other people of color in the room should have the chance to state their own feelings. All the White people should have the chance to listen and understand. We have to speak out when we encounter difficult ideas and not let them slide back into the unspoken again. And we need to be brave enough to challenge speakers to avoid letting the unspoken brew in silence.
DiAngelo, R. (2018). White Fragility. Boston: Beacon Press.
Feagin, J. R. (2010). The White Racial Frame: Centuries of Racial Framing and Counter-Framing. New York: Routledge.
Kendi, I. X. (2019). How to Be an Antiracist. New York: One World.
Sue, D. W. (2015). Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Sue, D. W., & Constantine, M. G. (2007). Racial Microaggressions as Instigators of Difficult Dialogues on Race: Implications for Student Affairs Educators and Students. The College Student Affairs Journal, 26(2), 136-143.