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The Stereotypes in Racist Words
Chimore Mack
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“What did you say?” my 3rd grade resource teacher, Mrs. Heller, asked me in shock. I had said the “n” word, not knowing what it meant. Immediately I was sent home from school.

I went to my grandmother, who was crocheting a blanket, and told her what I’d done. I asked her why I was sent home. She asked me where I’d heard the word. “I don’t know; it just came out of my mouth,” I said.

“Think before you speak,” she replied. “That word is very disrespectful and I don’t ever want you using it again. Do I make myself clear?” She spoke in a stern voice. I said yes.

She then showed me articles that she had saved about the “n” word, mostly arguments over whether it should be used or abolished. She wasn’t mad at me because I didn’t know any better. But that’s how I learned that the word is offensive and disrespectful.

Sometimes I continued using it, though, because so many other people do. My friends use it as a term of endearment. For example, “What’s good, my n-gga?” is a way of greeting someone.

In music, TV, and movies, people of African descent use the “n” word to convey friendship. For example, in the movie Friday, starring Ice Cube and Chris Tucker, the word gets used a lot in a humorous way. The message seems to be that the “n” word isn’t a threat as long as you’re using it in an affectionate way. And so people from other backgrounds also get the message that it’s OK to use. Yet you never hear people saying, “What’s up my cracker?” or “What’s up sp-c?” Some non-black people think because they grew up “in the hood” that it’s OK. But it really isn’t.

An Ugly History

When I was 15, I went through my grandmother’s books and read more about the origin of the word. I remembered an article she’d saved from the Daily Challenge (an African-American community newspaper) that quoted political activists such as Al Sharpton and Amiri Baraka saying that the word is based on stereotypes from white racists and that it degrades all black people. I decided I agreed with them; it is offensive. I felt like I’d disrespected my own people using that word and I vowed not to use it again.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, when my ancestors fought for our basic rights, the “n” word was used by the whites in power to tell us that we were somehow less and didn’t deserve such liberties. For years, we fought for the right to obtain an education, to vote, to get credit if we invented something and wanted to patent it, and even to sit where we wanted on a bus or a train. I knew that the word couldn’t ever really be positive because my ancestors were degraded with it.

I worry that people who aren’t of African descent may think that using the “n” word is a positive way to connect with others when they hear African-Americans use it all the time. It’s like a disease being spread.

So when my friends would say “Word up, my n-gga” I started asking them to call me by my name instead. They respected that, and some of them even stopped using the term at all in front of me.

Learning by Listening

Then I moved into a foster home with two girls of Hispanic descent. Sometimes these girls would say mean things about black people’s appearance. One day, one of them, who was from the Dominican Republic, said, “She has nappy hair,” about someone in a way that sounded like a put-down.

image by YC-Art Dept

She had been taught some racist ideas from her grandmother, who told her that having darker skin or thick, “nappy” hair was bad and unattractive. I then called her out and said that “nappy” isn’t a word people like, but that nappy hair is not a bad thing.

I couldn’t blame this girl because she was taught that stereotype at an early age, but I thought her grandmother was ignorant. She came to realize that her grandmother was wrong and she started accepting people of many complexions and hair textures. She started learning that all black people don’t have nappy hair and act ghetto. She stopped making ignorant comments about people who were black.

This girl taught me some things, too, like what life is like in the DR and how to make mangu, which is plantains, cheese, salami, egg, and red onions. I still make it. I also learned more about her culture. In fact, many people in the DR originate from Africa and Spain. Just like in the U.S., slavery and racism created attitudes that one race was better than another. But by talking with each other, we realized we both were mixes of many races and cultures and that we are all connected.

But I guess I didn’t learn my lesson because I had an altercation with this other girl who used the “n” word in my presence after I asked her not to. I got really angry and called her a “sp-c.” I wanted to let her know how I felt when she used the word.

She got very angry. “How dare you call me that? I feel so violated. My people fought for their rights and they were called that. I’m offended that you called me that. Apologize! I didn’t call you the ‘n’ word.”

I told her that I’d said it because she kept using the “n” word in my presence after I asked her not to. “Just like your ancestors were hurt by that word, my ancestors suffered from that “n” word you always use, and I told you not to use it in front of me.”

Lessons From Our Elders

It took her a day to calm down. Afterwards, we talked about the histories of both of our ancestors, like struggling to be accepted into society and having constitutional rights. She understood how I felt about her using the term and she finally respected my wishes. I told her that I wasn’t going to say the “s” word again. We realized how much impact racist words have.

I feel bothered when people of my heritage use the “n” word because they should understand the meaning and the origin even better than someone of a different heritage. They think that since we’re living in different times and they weren’t affected by that word like our ancestors were, it’s OK to just use it as a friendly term.

I know people argue that a group can take back a word that has been used to hurt and terrorize them, like “queer.” But I don’t think the “n” word can be rehabilitated because slavery lasted for hundreds of years and was so terrible. That word was something white people used to belittle black people and tell them that they weren’t fully human. Using that word is disrespecting the black heroes like Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. Du Bois, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X because it’s a word that degraded them as they fought for our rights.

And even among black people, the word is sometimes used in a negative way, which I especially don’t like. Sometimes people differentiate “real men” from “n-ggas,” meaning men who don’t take care of their kids, or who don’t have a job—basically a black man not living up to his full potential. But since the word originally referred to all black people, this use of it keeps the bad stereotypes going.

“That’s my n-gga” is also a term of affection, of connection, almost like family. Older people use “brother” or “sister” in a similar way. That feels more respectful to me and also gets across the point that we black people stick together.

I think people fail to realize the impact of their words because they don’t put themselves in the place of someone from a different background. They rely on the media to tell them about other peoples’ cultures. They fail to understand that what is portrayed on TV isn’t always real. But if people talk to each other, they can break down those stereotypes and racial slurs won’t apply.

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