The Boy from Virginia Encounters the “N”

(Due to the severity of the following blog topic, I will resume my “Unforeseen” series at a later date.)

            “Nigger.” The word has been in existence for quite some time, as many people around the world know. I shouldn’t have to go into the historical background of it, or the ramifications of white folks or even black folks using the word. I will say this, however; the word hasn’t been a part of my vocabulary for some time. I do not use the word in order to maintain “ownership,” nor do I use it to describe my fellow brother. But tonight, the word was used to hurt (or try to at least). Here’s a play-by-play of what happened about 4 hours ago.

            After finishing a great night of this outdoor spectacle show I’m in at the Edinburgh Fringe festival called CARGO, my roommate (a young black male actor from Birmingham) and myself proceeded to walk down Leith Walk back to our digs. I, of course, got hungry and decided I wanted sticky toffee pudding, which my roomie agreed could be appetizing. So we decided to go eat instead of heading home and as we were confirming this decision and chatting about how tired he was and how hungry I was, I noticed something out of my periphery.

I knew shit was going to start even before we walked into and out of it. It’s like a having a spidey sense…sometimes you just know when people are looking to aggravate you. (If you were ever a target for anything growing up, this feeling always sticks with you) I clocked the following: a group of drunken Scotsmen, standing outside of a pub, smoking and grumbling in the garbled and chewed dialect that is Scots. It was as if they were waiting for this moment to arrive: two black men to say it to, finally! I watched the eldest looking man target us with his drunken eyes. I watched the mischief grow in his face, and I swear, it was as if he was preparing to recite Shakespeare. He took a huge breath and belched out the infamous word; a word that carries with it so much  historical oppression, and yet simultaneously carries nothing except the value one gives it:

“Nigger!”

The inebriated din coming from the surrounding Scotsmen came to a halt as they watched us and waited to see how we’d respond. My roommate and I continued walking (because honestly, I didn’t have time to curse at, or try and educate these ignorant motherfuckers. My stomach was calling me worse names for not feeding it). But then, it hit me…that situation actually happened. I tried not to acknowledge it, but then it made me sort of laugh. You see, not that I don’t take racism seriously in the UK, but compared to the history of racism in the U.S…I’m just not too bothered by stuff here. Oddly enough, I felt that if that same word was to come from an American white man, then I’d hold him more responsible. There is a history behind that word of which ALL Americans are aware. Therefore usage of that word means that someone has bad intentions. They are using this word as a means of trying to exact power, or trying to harm you, tryingto “show you your place.”

When I heard this Scottish imbecile use this word, I couldn’t help but feel as if this guy had no clue what he was saying. Yes, he knew to use the word at a black man, but I think his purpose behind using the word involved seeing how my roommate and I would respond. It wasn’t like all of his mates were using the word. Hell, if they were in on it, they might’ve sniggered or continued saying it or something. Fact is, only one person said it and he said it as if he’d been waiting all his life to finally get it out of his system. Does that make it ok? HELL MOTHERFUCKIN NO! But what should I have done?

I am not in the business of giving people what they want. That includes responses. When I worked in customer service, I would try my best to give service with a smile even when people were being ultra-rude to me. I figured this was the same kind of situation. But instead of smiling, I walked on by. What purpose would it have served me to go up to some random drunken Scot and try to educate him about who I am; to try to make him understand that his yelling of the word “Nigger” to me will never make me a nigger? At the end of the day, I know who I am and how competent I am as a human being. So I kept on stepping.

But then the paranoia started marching through my mind. (If you are a white person reading this, please do not take offense, but instead, listen because what I am going to say next is something you need to know.)

The entire time I was walking to the restaurant to get my dessert, I became more and more aware of my blackness, or shall I say my “other-ness.” For some reason, though I knew I was one of few black men in this city, that fact became more amplified. My roommate and I walked past certain pubs, that we pass every day, but I could feel eyes on me as I passed. I might have been overreacting, but after an incident like that, everyone becomes a bit suspicious to me. Why? Because, to me, that man (who some might consider brave or stupid) said what he’d been dying to say….whereas some people were probably thinking it. I don’t know which one is worse: saying it out loud or wanting to say it. Regardless, it makes me want to keep people at a distance, even though I’m fully aware that EVERYONE DOES NOT THINK THAT WAY (I wrote that in all caps just so people are clear).

What I also started noticing was something I’d acknowledged a while back, which was the fact that I must be the only Black Southern American man in the whole of Scotland. My type of black man is VERY different from a British black man. That fact aside…I was increasingly paying more attention to people who were paying attention to me and my roommate.

Once we’d reached the restaurant, and I’d tried to dismiss the event that happened further down the road, I felt like my evening of discomfort still wasn’t over. The moment we stepped in the restaurant, which was a place we’d visited before, there was a bit of apprehension, both from the wait staff, and us. I’d noticed when we came in how packed the place was, and considering the place was relatively dressy casual, I was feeling like my jeans and hoodie were not going to be all that appropriate. Oh hell, I thought, you’re just getting something to eat.

“Table for Two,” I told the waiter.

We walked in…and stood out like two random spots on an all white Dalmatian. As a friend of mine put it ever so cleverly, I was “hyper-aware” of my surroundings now. I could sense any stray movement, any distasteful looks, anything that seemed like it could be geared towards my “other-ness.” I noticed immediately, upon taking my seat, a red haired older man whose piecing gaze was fixed on me. When I looked back, he maintained the eye-contact until it seemed he was bored with me and went back to drinking his wine. Okay, I thought. I’m overreacting. Or was I?

After the waiter came to take my order for sticky toffee pudding and a vanilla toffee ice cream over a chocolate crisp cookie, I saw a woman, sitting two tables over, craning her neck almost 180 degrees to eye me. And then…when I smiled and nodded to her (my mother always said it’s not polite to stare), she turned away from me as if she too could have better things to worry about. I don’t know what upset me more, my increasing paranoia, the fact that I was still reeling over the N-word on the street, or the fact that I was like an art exhibit that no one was interested in analyzing. It was as if they’d seen what they needed to see, labeled it, and that was more satisfactory to them than the food on their plates. It goes without saying that I couldn’t fully enjoy my desserts.

To further help my paranoia, I saw one lone black man exit the restaurant. He’d been sitting waaaay at the back and I hadn’t noticed he was there). As he was walking past, I saw that same red haired older man use his laser vision to watch him from the time he got out of his seat until the time he walked out of the door. What his fascination was with him, I don’t know. But all I was feeling was uncomfortable and it wasn’t the food making me feel that way.

After waiting a day to pay our bill (we got the bill on Saturday 11: 45pm and didn’t pay til Sunday 12:10am, literally), my roommate and I headed back to the flat. While sleepiness washed over him, my mind was inundated with questions. The ones coming to the forefront the most were: Did I handle this situation appropriately? Have I responded adequately? Have I let my guard down too much? Have I become too complacent with thinking that racism wouldn’t happen to me in the UK? Has it been going on here and I just chose not to see it? Did I honestly see the UK as some Utopia where I would be immune from anything like this happening to me? Lastly, why would I think for one moment that I would be able to handle racism here in the UK? Was it because I considered people here to be tamer? 

A lot of thoughts have gone through my head behind this and I cannot answer any of them with one distinct answer. All of my answers need explanation and what does make my life more difficult is not knowing who to talk to about it.

Secret: Race is a topic I have avoided talking about while here in the UK. One, I’ve not had to truly deal with anything as outlandish as this. Secondly, The racism here has never been directed at me. The last time I was called the N-word was when I was a student at Milton Academy, and even then, the coward said it on my voicemail. (That story is an extremely long one from my past) However, I felt that I could take action then. I felt I could find a way to educate the young bigot who called me out of my name and have him learn the ramifications of using such a hateful word.

 There on the street on Edinburgh…I had no such power. I had two choices: confront this man, or move on…and I moved on. I didn’t “remove and assess” as I usually do…I just kept going. Maybe that’s the only thing I can do, despite the circumstances. But I still wonder, was I a coward for letting someone verbally get me underfoot? Or should I take pride in knowing that I have the spiritual upper hand at the end of the day?

A message scrawled on an Edinburgh wall.hateful message found on same wall in EdinburghHateful message found on same wall in Edinburgh

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6 comments on “The Boy from Virginia Encounters the “N”

  1. Debbie Ford says:

    Son, you did the right thing by walking away and not giving into pitful selfish remarks. See the lord guided you and your roommate away from that situation because that drunken fool wanted to show just what he learn as a kid and he was hoping you’ll would react so his other scottish friend would help out in case you ‘ll latch back.
    He got fooled because you’ll were to intellingent for that an you’ll ignored him the best thing you could of done. So be proud of you and your roommate. I AM PROUD OF THE BOTH OF YOU BUT BE CAREFUL OVER THERE RACISM DUE EXIST. YOU ARE THE BETTER MAN.

  2. Marcy says:

    T, why would you think that racism doesn’t exist there, just as much as it exists here. It hasn’t dissappeared, people just aren’t as open about it. I do agree with youth that this is not all people. It is ignorance in taking the time to get to know others that allows for bigotry to continue.

    You did well in your decision not to respond the man. I know it ate you up, but your maturity allowed you to make a wise decision. Responding may have been a waste of time, but you not responding may have made he and his buddies realize that using the N word is a waste of time. I am often put in situations where I am the only African-Amer, therefore my goal is to always dispel the myths that have been assigned to our race.

    You are a hard worker and God will continue to watch over you and your endeavors, bigotry or not.

  3. Teo says:

    Tommy,
    I think you did the right thing ignoring that ignoramus. I agree with you that he was probably waiting his whole life just for that one moment. There’s racism everywhere. Even in our black communities back home…remember Black Star’s album with that interlude: “she got that good hair. I like them girls with the light complexion…”
    Living in Japan as I do, with my wife and kid, I’m aware of it here. In general, the racism I feel here is more “benevolent”, or at least ignorant but not malicious. There’s the occasional person who just wants to get a rise out of someone by pointing out that “you’re not like them and you don’t belong in [their] community!”
    In that fool’s case, all you could do was walk on by. Had you confronted him, you would’ve gained nothing. If you had been polite and intellectual it would have been the same as talking to a brick wall. If you had responded offensively in kind, the most you could have hoped to accomplish was to prove to him all the negative stereotypes that abound about our people, maybe even getting your arse kicked by a gang of drunken Scotsmen.
    It’s hard to ignore racism. Just be smart and know how to respond to it. You did the right thing. If you catch that man sometime sober, reason might work on him. But then again, since he’s dumb enough to call you nigger, I wouldn’t put much faith in his reasoning at all.

    -Teo

  4. bruce says:

    if the worst line that anyone in 2010 could come up with to hurst or insult me is calling me the “n” word…then its not me that has something to learn it is them.

  5. bruce says:

    if the worst line anyone in 2010 could come up with to hurt or insult me is to call me the “n” word….its not me that has something to learn its them

  6. Kia says:

    I am so proud of how you handled that situation! You definitely acted the way you should have. You do not have to question your actions from that day. Just be proud and continue to walk with your head up high. Do not let this one incident make you feel uncomfortable walking the streets or going into restaurants. ONE idiot does not equal ALL!!!! Love ya!

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