Fair warning: I don’t censor myself on my blog, so if you’re in any way sensitive to racial slurs or discussions of racial-acrimony, then this may not be the piece for you.
The first time I remember being called a nigger, I was about five or so. It was on a playground, and a girl and her friends were laughing at me for wanting to share a sandbox, which apparently I wasn’t entitled to use on account of my being a dirty nigger. I was devastated, even without fully understanding the centuries of hate behind the language. It was one of the earliest moments where I really felt that something about me was wrong. I believe this happened at an oh-so-prestigious Montessouri School, ironic and irrelevant, since manners aren’t synonymous with class–indeed that can sometimes encourage ignorance as much as dispel it. My parents always wanted the best for my sister and I, and worked incredibly hard to provide it. While this was a wound from which I’d easily heal, my parents had fought intolerance for most of their adult lives and were scarred veterans to racial inequality. Soon, I would understand their journey; the girls on the playground were only the start of mine.
The second time I clearly recall someone using that slur on me was from a homeless man. He couldn’t decide if I was a thoroughbred nigger, since I hadn’t been out in the sun that summer and was less coco and more cream (my color really pops if I’m exposed and I go deep-bronze to black). So he unleashed a tirade on me ranging from nigger, to paki, to chink, to “spic or something”. Lovely. Given my history, my association with the N word and others like it will always be one of disgust. I didn’t come from the Bronx. I didn’t relate with the experiences of inner city kids, and I couldn’t grasp how anyone would want to ‘reclaim’ that word for music, empowerment or a declaration against racism. Empathy, however, often comes with age and understanding, and I hadn’t yet learned how many biases there were to confront, or how those affected were trapped by social-circumstance and would react in extraordinarily different ways than I ever would. For most of my youth, I was a black duckling in a lake of white ones in Barrie Ontario, and my world-view was as fledgling as my empathy.
If you’ve seen BBC’s Little Britain, there’s a sketch with this flamboyantly gay character named Daffyd Thomas, who declares himself: “the only gay in the village.” Growing up, it was like that, only not a sketch, and you could replace ‘gay’ with ‘black’ (then later both would apply). Persons of color were such a minority that the inherent racism and alienation practiced upon people of any difference was insidiously accepted. In my age bracket, there was a young woman named Lisa who suffered from cerebral palsy and who my friends and I called roller-girl. I’m appalled that I was ever part of such ostracization and bigotry, and could I ever reverse the sands of time and be the (reasonably) confident person that I am today, I would stop that past-Christian from making his aspersions. Still, at that time, even my friends called me jigaboo or nigger-boy and I laughed at the epithet. Note that I didn’t consider this offensive, nor lump it in with the insults given to me by mean school girls or nasty vagrants. Indeed, I thought this was okay, even if I hated it, secretly, and would never say.
Once, when I was older, but still a teen, I was treated with the kind of hate that couldn’t be shouldered off: a police officer held me–not my friends who were not of color and were also in attendance–on the roof of an office building where we’d flung our bathingsuits. It’d been a ridiculous, though not unexpected happenstance since we’d been carefree and spinning our bathing-suits, bundled in plastic bags, as if they were balls in socks. Once one of us threw it sky hi, the rest had to follow. Splat. Roof. Who’s going to get them? I guess me? There was a ladder, up I went. Also important, is that these were new friends, not my Barrie crew; we were glasses wearing, Magic the Gathering playing, Morissey listening nerdlings–as threatening as a chess club.
While we (mostly I) were detained, the police officer ignored the supplications of my friends, kept his hand to his gun at all times and broke me down via walkie-talkie as a young black male, possibly breaking into a building. My friends down below were privy to the most disturbing aspects of my detainment, and were asked why they even hung out with: “his kind of people; they’re never up to any good.” As if well-groomed white kids should ever be in the company of a jigaboo. He stopped short of using the N word at least. I was summoned from the roof after a while, guided into a car–hand-on-hip-on-gun the whole time–and placed in handcuffs. People were called. Questions asked. We waited.
Eventually, Mother bear Cynthia (who was a budding lawyer at the time) stormed to my rescue and berated the officers with legal-speak; by then two officers were present for the terribly dangerous boy who’d been on a roof with bags of wet swimsuits, stealing them for whatever dark voodoo coloured folks do with water-wear. Bogga booga. One of my friend’s mothers, Candice, also arrived to lampoon the misguided officers and in the end I received an unfriendly apology and a warning that I shouldn’t be climbing onto roofs. I was given the pardon from the window of a police car though, and the man wouldn’t even look at me. (Retrospectively, I’m pretty sure I write flinty heroines because I have, many times over, been saved by them in real life.)
As I grew older I became more withdrawn and introverted. Compounding the issue of my withdrawal was that I’d attached–even in isolation–another minority badge to myself: gay. Now here was a class of minority that threatened what male friendships I had, merely through the presumptions of attraction and the conflicts with gender, sex and religion that have spoiled so much of what it means to be human. What was I now? Nigger-queer? Who would ever want me?
I kept this disgust to myself. I was in Kingston, staying with my mom for a while as she (re)started university (she stopped Uni ages past when she had kids), and she was too busy to notice my slow slide into depression–I don’t blame her, I hid it well. Eventually my repression and loathing of my race, gender-conformity and sexuality brought me to a very dark place and I tried to end my life.
Following that climax, in the fight to love myself, I had to cast away many things: bad friends, drugs, alcohol (I’ve fought this battle a few times in my darkest days, though won each time). I went through a period of intense hostility with my father, who, having lived as a black, impoverished youth, having crawled for any success he’d earned, was infuriated that I would do this to him, to myself, to my race. “Being gay is a white man’s disease,” is what I was told. What…the…fuck? Shameful that anyone ever corrupted his innocence enough for him to believe that. No one chooses to be gay/ queer/ trans; it’s not all flowers, rainbows and Will & Grace wit. It’s drowning in an ocean of self-loathing until you learn to swim above the bullshit. I know that now, as an adult. I know he only loved me and was afraid of how I’d be treated. But I hated him then. My father has come a long way since that time, though reshaping judgments into understanding is a process of moulding volatile clay. We’ve reached a place now where even if we’ll never be that chummy father and son, he doesn’t hate me and, I believe, he respects the choices I’ve made.
What I wish more people would realize is that all of these experiences, of being marginalized, produce the same demoralizing, dehumanizing responses; the same gut-sickness, anger and doubt. Some people can understand what it means to be black, but not what it means to be gay. Some women can understand what it means to be discriminated against or oggled for their breasts, but not what it feels like to be emasculated–or, even, how the concept of emasculation itself is a binary construct and utter fantasy to begin with. Some white, Caucasian men can’t understand that the ‘normalcy’ in which they’ve been living is paradise to everyone else not sharing their throne. I said some consistently, because I believe demographics overlap all over the place; and that there are more sound minds than unsound ones, more people who are beginning to understand the ripple-effect of hatred and the universal reactions that we all share when made victim to hate. Obviously, some injustices are greater than others, but they all suck–we should be united through our displacement, collectively addressing the suckiest inequalities first. But never should we (minorities, outcasts, the unwanted) be fighting each other.
I see glimmers of hope in tomorrow. As a pop-culture junkie, many of my views are consumed and felt through art: movies, music, books. Michaela Coel, artist, poet and actress has produced visceral, aggressive and clear content on feminism and black culture. Also, I don’t know how many of you have watched Netflix’s Luke Cage, which takes place in a faux-Harlem and comes replete with all the fixings of classic Blacksploitation and Spike Lee films, but the delivery of these conflicts and ideas is masterful. Rather than painting an absolute us-vs-them scenario, you have people trapped by race. Others relishing in their heritage. Some surrendering to their despair. And, brave leaders who show total acceptance of diversity (“we’re all the shitter here” attitudes). These characters focus beyond the immediate mess and upon the greater issues of poverty, class and culture. In one scene, which really moved me, there’s a discussion between the local crime boss–a truly menacing and powerful actor with the gravitas of a Tanzanian drug lord–and his refined cousin, a councilwoman seeking to reform Harlem into her vision of racial utopia. The word nigger is discussed, and casually. She detests it, he embraces the hate and power that can be drawn from incantations of evil. Then the moment ends, as quickly as it came, but the effect lingers. The simplicity and provocation of such a short dialog, so colloquially given had tremendous effect on me–and others to whom I’ve spoken–in educating us on how and why this word is used.
What am I doing in my art to enrich this discussion? Well, I have Rowena, Kanatuk, Erik and countless other voices that speak from the conflicts and diversity I’ve known, and I will continue to write such characters because they’re real. I may sound preachy or moralizing at times, and so might they. But it’s Sunday, and I’m preaching love. So preach it with me.
More and more I believe that the advocates that come after the rallying and chaos, and who connect us through art, humour and culture, are the ones that will shape the world. I want to see more of this smooth, real-world dialog that isn’t stilted behind politics or evangelized and fanatical. That’s what people need: simple understanding. Breaking down hate can often be as easy as finding the right way for people to hear you: the real you, and not the shell–woman, queer, black, whatever–in which your colourless, beautiful soul hides.
All my love,