The N Word

I was out running in Los Angeles years ago when a man and woman in a Land Rover ran a stop sign and almost mowed me down. I’ll call them Ken and Barbie for two reasons (1) they looked like the iconic dolls and (2) it’s the most derogatory thing I can think to call them right now – note that my most derogatory term only conjures an industry that makes hundreds of millions of dollars. Facing death, I jumped like a jack rabbit and cried out at the same time – something on the order of “Aaaagh!”

Ken, clearly startled by his own negligence, leaned out of the window and yelled, “Get out of the way you _igger!” You know the word.

I am a dark-skinned Mexican-American (If you don’t know that by now please click on the home page link and get to some reading). So I was simultaneously offended and perplexed, “But I’m Mexican American!” I thought.

I yelled back, “I’m Mexican American!” like that somehow made his racial slur moot.

I looked at the girlfriend, thinking she would rein in her man, but she looked just as pissed and frankly, smug – like they were doing me a favor by not running me down with their car.  I ran off with tears in my eyes.

After my run, I reflected on the incident.  Ken was scared. He was afraid and because he was uncomfortable with that emotion he became angry and because his ego wouldn’t let him be angry at himself he projected his anger at me. In anger, his psyche called on the ugliest part of himself – his ingrained racial bias.

Did that make him a racist? Not necessarily, but it does mean, in my mind, that he’s got a problem. The way I see it, we all have racial bias. But if your knee jerk reaction in a heated moment is to use the N word then race plays a large role for you – one that requires serious reflection.

Now is it likely that Ken will ever do that sort of internal work? No. He’s Ken! No one, not even Barbie, holds him accountable to search the ugly parts of himself. That ugliness in him will continue to exist and it will manifest in all sorts of subtle ways – not just in calling a woman a nasty name, but in whom he associates with, who he hires, who he promotes, etc. Does that become racism? I’m not sure, but it certainly plants the seeds.

While no one probably held Ken accountable, I was glad to see Paula Deen was. Even if it was sad to see her try and shirk it with her gun to head comments. She still has work to do.

That process, for anyone, is painful. But if she doesn’t take this time to do some soul searching and learn, she will become entrenched and embattled and her world will get worse. Like her friend Oprah says, “your life is always speaking to you. First in whispers. ... It's subtle, those whispers. And if you don't pay attention to the whispers, it gets louder and louder. It's like getting thumped upside the head, like my grandmother used to do. ... You don't pay attention to that, it's like getting a brick upside your head [or a ham to the face]. You don't pay attention to that, the whole brick wall falls down.”