The first time I encountered racism, I was 5 years old. (A couple of girls told me I couldn’t get on the swings during recess because I was Black.) About a nine years later, I was called the “n-word” for the first time. It was actually a little late in life, compared to most of my friends, who’d encountered the word by sixth grade.
I was in band at the time, standing outside during a rehearsal for a parade. A friend of mine had been arguing with a saxophonist and he called her a “whore.” I interjected, saying that was an awful thing to say. He’s response: “you’re a whore and a nigger.”
That was the first time I’d been called either of those words, so it was a double whammy for me, but the use of the “n-word” is what really hurt. The intonation with which he used the word just seemed to imply to me that, in his eyes, I’d never be as good as him just based on the color of my skin. I started to wonder if this was what other people thought when they saw me. That’s a lot to process at 14 years old.
My ability to recall that moment is not an anomaly. Many Black people can remember the first time they were called the “n-word” because it’s such an emotionally charged moment. It’s like you’re having an out-of-body experience. (“Did this guy really just say that word to me?”) Imagine the first time you were called a “slut,” but magnify that feeling times 100 and you sort of get a sense of what it’s like when someone decides their way of putting you down is to call you the “n-word.”
Buzzfeed Video enlisted a group of people to recount the first time they were called the “n-word” and to explain how it made them feel. The fact that some of them were only called that word a few years ago tells us that people aren’t done using this word as an insult. (Of course, there is a big movement to reclaim the word by using it in a mostly non-insulting manner as a synonym for “friend” or “person.” That’s a movement I personally do not subscribe to, but I don’t judge anyone who does.)
Hopefully, more candid discussions about how it’s perceived by the people insulted will change that.