I recently read an essay by an African-American woman I know (I’ll call her “Autumn”) about a time when she was the only minority in a room of white friends. The whites started talking about the use of the “N” word in their families growing up. They weren’t advocating the use of the word. In fact, they were talking about how appalling it had been and how their families had evolved in the intervening decades.
Autumn wrote about how embarrassed and uncomfortable she was during the conversation, and how reluctant she was to voice her discomfort. After the event, Autumn agonized for days over whether to say anything to her friends.
She finally told one of them. He said he hadn’t meant to hurt her. That response didn’t satisfy Autumn.
She told another friend. She felt much better when that friend acknowledged the pain Autumn had felt, and described a situation when she herself had felt singled out and humiliated.
As I read Autumn’s article, I felt uneasy myself. I couldn’t quite grasp the point of the essay. It was clear the conversation had had a deep emotional impact on Autumn, and she had needed someone to recognize her pain. But I couldn’t understand why the remarks by her friends had hurt so much.
Had she felt her friends were using the “N” word toward her? But they obviously had been disparaging toward people who used it. Why would friends expressing disapproval of the word feel like a threat to her? As a white, I couldn’t understand why she felt humiliated by the simple verbalization of the word.
Had she felt invisible as her white friends talked? Had their vocalization of the word, even in a disparaging way, somehow belittled an African-American’s gut-level hatred of its use in any context? The whites’ perspective on use of the “N” word would naturally be different than Autumn’s. An open inclusion of her would probably have enriched everyone’s understanding of the impact of the word.
I will never know why Autumn felt the way she did. I found that to be a failing in her essay. But clearly, it has haunted me, and caused me to reflect on what she wrote. So maybe it was a successful article, despite my initial reaction.
Regardless of its strength as a piece of writing, Autumn’s essay was a good reminder of the difficulties of talking about race – and, indeed, about any dimension of diversity – in our culture. We come to these issues with our whole life’s experience. Some of these experiences are individual, some are passed on to us through families and groups we belong to, such as church and school.
In every case, our capacity for understanding ourselves and each other is enhanced if we can ask, respectfully, “Why do you feel the way you do? Tell me; I’m listening.”