The N-Word And The Effect It Has On Me

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by Travis Richardson

A little over a week ago, a video of a University of Oklahoma fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, singing a racist chant was leaked to the world. You can see an uncensored clip of the incident here in case you missed it:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dG-wq6SJqjU.  As an OU alumnus I was horrified that something like that happened in 2015, yet sadly, I was not surprised. Most of the students I encountered at the university were not racist at all. But there were some on campus and as I remember, there was a particular fraternity that was known for trucks, boots, and the Southern stars and bars printed on a few T-shirts. Frats pick and choose their members and develop very strong and distinct personalities that differentiate one house from the other. A combination of tight finances and my own weird ethical code at the time (no booze, no dating, just learning) led me to decline a few offers to join a couple fraternities. In the end, I became a resident advisor (RA) which paid for room and board, and also made me a disciplinarian for freshmen boys (men was not appropriate for many of them) living in the dorms, many who were fraternity pledges.

I’ll come back to my time as an RA and a very ugly racist incident I encountered at OU, but first I want to write about my own use of the N-word in stories and an early experience that I had with the word that shaped my experience. I will have at least 18 short stories published by the end of this year along with 2 novellas. Several of the stories use the N-word. My story “Maybelle’s Last Stand” will be in next month’s Shotgun Honey Presents: Locked & Loaded anthology and it features extreme southern racism with the use of the N-word and a harsh ending born of maternal love. I believe I use the N-word based on a few situations I had growing up, witnessing the devastating effect of two syllables.

Hearing the N-word as a child

Tennessee Family

Me in Tennessee a couple of years before the family reunion.

The first time remembering hearing the N-word took place in Tennessee in the early eighties. It was a family reunion on my mother’s mother’s side. I remember hundreds of people gathered in a community center or country club. Several people asked me who I was and when I said Travis Richardson their faces went blank face. I had to explain my mother and then grandmother’s maiden name before they finally were able to connect me to a branch on the family tree. I ended up hanging out with older kids in a trophy room that had a television in it. They were mostly boys who knew each other well. I was by far the youngest and the only kid from Oklahoma, but they were cool with me. We watched a program on the history of baseball that ended with the catchy song “Talkin’ Baseball.” In between black and white footage of past greats were commercials and at one point a 7UP commercial came on the air that featured Geoffrey Holder using a thick Caribbean accent to sell his “uncola cola.” To me, Mr. Holder was the hero who saved the little redhead orphan girl in the musical “Annie.”

Geoffrey Holder

Geoffrey Holder as Punjab.

To my young relatives in the trophy room he was a nigger. They shouted that word over and over again during the commercial with unified hate and camaraderie. They also made cracks about watermelons, big lips, and fried chicken. My mind could not comprehend what was happening. I liked the guy on TV. He had risked his life to save Annie by hanging from a helicopter from his unwrapped turban. He was a good guy. So why was he being attacked with so much anger by people who obviously didn’t know him? And how did they know what he ate? (I only knew he drank 7UP.) It was the first time I had heard or at least recognized the N-word and I did not like it.

Hearing the N-word as a young adult

After that time, I encountered the word more and came to understand the history and uses of the word.  (I remember once my grandfather lectured a couple of deer hunters about not using the N-word in a conversation in the woods. My dad and I just wanted to get far away from hateful men with rifles.) But I had another fateful incident that changed the way I look at the word. As a sophomore at OU, I was an RA in the Adams Hall dormitory. All freshmen are required to live in the dorms at OU. RAs had to do rounds, which meant walking up 12 flights of stairs (I preferred going up over down) in four towers and crossing the hallways to look for any signs of trouble. I didn’t get off on the power, so my citation pad was less used than others. If students were respectful, honest, and admitted mistakes, I often let them off with a verbal warning. One night I was doing midnight rounds with another RA. The other RA was great. (I’m not naming his names or others in this story.) He was a laid back, nice guy that everybody liked. Oh, and one other detail, he was black.

That last bit of detail didn’t make any difference to me or anybody I knew. He was just a cool guy. Period. On that fateful night as I walked up the stairs and rounded the corner to the elevator lobby, I froze, seeing something that my brain could not process. A female student was fellating a male student in a very open and public space. (No links here, you’re on your own to look that up.)  And here is the kicker, I knew both of the students. They were both freshmen who went to my high school. While I stood, shocked still, my RA partner came up from behind me. I remember the girl had turned away, embarrassed. The guy who was on the receiving end of the couple’s transaction was trashed, his eyes were glassy and he was trying to pull up his pants. But when he saw my partner, he dropped the pants and his eyes changed from drunken humiliation to rage. (I remember this moment well.)  He started shouting “Nigger, you nigger!” over and over again in a voice that was deep (deeper than his normal voice) and full of malevolence. My partner ran down the stairs. I stood there for maybe a moment, but then joined my fellow RA. I remember hearing that a-hole shouting the N-word as I bounded down the stairs trying to catch up to my partner.

I hate how shaken and traumatized my partner was from just a single, stupid word. (I was too, but not on the same level.) Words have power. In theory we both could have taken down this drunken a-hole. He was barely standing drunk with his privates on display, vulnerability in the extreme. That didn’t matter. The racist jackass had utilized a weapon. A weapon of evil. The student was kicked out (and yes he was in a frat), but I believe he was reinstated the following year after taking sensitivity training. Perhaps he changed his racist ways. If so, good for him. If not, then I hope he got neutered in some humiliating accident so he won’t breed his own degenerate kind.  I do know that the RA who was racially targeted continued with his job for the rest of the year, but then left the resident advising business the following year in the middle of the semester. Did the events on that fateful day have something to do with it? Maybe, maybe not. All I know is that he was a 20 year old man who was incredibly nice and sensitive and he was verbally assaulted based on the color of the skin by somebody who was clearly in violation of both the law and decency. Some wounds don’t heal easy even if we wear a smile and say everything is okay.

N-word today on my campus

So this brings me back to the OU SAE video. When it first aired in the evening on March 8, I watched a couple of news reports and went to bed unhappy, but glad that OU’s president Boren was taking decisive action as he had done with a tepee urination incident back when he first took office. I didn’t immerse myself in the controversy, only reading a little of Boren’s statements to kick the fraternity off campus and some organized rallies on campus. Both actions which I support as an alumnus (who donates annually).

OU logo

This is how I feel.

I didn’t react much on Facebook or other places because I seem to have a genetic disposition to mull things over instead of instantaneously responding (which is bad for a Twitter account) and I try not to jump on outrage bandwagons. (I also had a crime writers conference to prepare for and bunch of work to get done before I hit the road.) A high school and college friend on Facebook mused about the overreaction to the scandal and several of my high school alumni joined in with similar sentiments. The comments ranged from (excuse the paraphrasing) people are so easily offended these days, to thank God nobody recorded me in college and why is the university coming down so hard on guys who didn’t hurt anybody and the similar violent things are happening in the world and this makes news?!?. There were only two voices of very kind dissent in the post, one from a childhood friend who has biracial children. I was disappointed. I thought there would be universal condemnation of SAE to have them associated with OU, the fraternal/Panhellenic system, and Oklahoma as a whole. This distressed me as much if not more than the original incident. Why was everybody so defensive? They weren’t on the bus chanting the ignorant song.

SAEcomebackTwitter

For those who feel victimized by people angry at SAE, please read this message.

I mentioned those comments to an OU alumna currently at UCLA and she sees it as white people/Oklahomans (and she is a white Okie) twisting incidents to be all about them. I hate false victimization. It pollutes dialogue and discussion of ideas. I have a theory that white victimization started in the late eighties with damaging political correctness superiority and then shifted into high gear with the unrelenting neoconservative movement that still makes it impossible for me to have a conversation of any depth with my father (this phenomenon is happening with other sons too). Sigh. That is a blog for another time.

So getting back to writing since this is a writing blog. I think the two incidents mentioned above and probably a few others, have led me to put the N-word in the mouths of characters I either despise or at least wanted to paint as ignorant. It appears in both my novellas and a few short stories. In a couple of cases I changed the N-word for a less-offensive one on some rewrites. I recently accepted an offer to write a short story for an anthology called Forty-Four Caliber Funk to be edited by Gary Phillips. I have to come up with a story set in the turbulent inner-cities of the 60s and 70s. I love the challenge, but it has me wondering if I will use the N-word or not, and if so in what context. I’m maturing every day as a writer and person, and I hope you do as well.

Thank you for your time!

Travis Richardson is fortunate to have been nominated for both the Anthony and Macavity short story awards for “Incident on the 405,” featured in MALFEASANCE OCCASIONAL: GIRL TROUBLE. His novella LOST IN CLOVER was listed in Spinetingler Magazine’s Best Crime Fiction of 2012. He has published stories in several online zines and anthologies. He edits the Sisters-In-Crime LA newsletter, reviews Chekhov shorts atwww.chekhovshorts.com and sometimes shoots a short movie. His latest novella is KEEPING THE RECORD. Find out more at: www.tsrichardson.com

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24 Responses to The N-Word And The Effect It Has On Me

  1. Kaye George says:

    Very thoughtful post, Travis. Thank you for writing it. I grew up in northern Illinois and went to school, from kindergarten on, with blacks (who were then called Negroes, it was so long ago). We played together after school. I remember being on a trip to the Smokies when I was about 10 and seeing the two restrooms, White and Colored. I told my mom I would use the Colored one, and I headed that way. It sounded prettier than the White one. She yanked me back and said she would explain those words later. I was astounded. Still am!

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  2. Kathy Waller says:

    In situations like this, I think of what Atticus Finch tells Scout when he instructs her not to use that word: “It’s common.” In another place, he says a related word is used by “ignorant, trashy people.” Fraternity members are, in my view, rather privileged young men who are supposed to be leaders, now and in the future. When they behave as the ones at OU did, it’s chilling, because that behavior doesn’t stem from immaturity, and their world-views won’t magically change with age. And despite college degrees they’ll still be ignorant. Often political correctness is just a term for being respectful and polite, and another aspect of being educated.

    Concerning your writing–if it’s the correct word, use it.

    Thanks for this thoughtful post.

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    • Travis says:

      Thank you Kathy. I have a feel those guys have no idea how good they have it (and may never). Even those that were kicked out will probably have second and third chances that others would not have. With privilege comes responsibility and well, decency.

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  3. Doris says:

    Travis, it is always difficult to open closed minds. As the world of haves and have nots widens, people need to find someone to blame. It has been the standard practice for eons. That does not make it right, it never has and never will, but it is a reality.
    When I do historic presentations, in character, I will use the language of the time period, much like you do in your writing. Today I use the word person, color or ethnicity has nothing to do with anything. People are people. The wisest thing my parents taught me, “everyone puts their pants on just like everyone else”. Doris

    Like

    • Travis says:

      Thank you Doris. I agree. The blame game is awful. The history is full of race riots and oppression that is just awful. Although I sometimes complain about my parents, I can never accuse them of being racist. 🙂

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  4. Wranglers says:

    I had not seen the video but followed your link and it is astounding to me, the amount of intolerance and lack of insight still present in some people. This was told to me when we visited Alabama some years back. A lady who grew up in Alabama, but now lived in New England was visiting a civil war battlefield as we were in Georgia, and told me how she was taken for a northerner now with her new accent, and shunned when she revisited her area of birth. This certainly illustrates how ignorant and silly prejudice is and how people who allow it to control them are. It also illustrates the disconnect between self-respect and behavior being cultivated in our society in many ways. I can tell this affected you strongly and rightfully so.

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  5. I lived in Arkansas for awhile and I saw a lot of disrespect and hatred of anyone who was any other color than white. The “N” word was used repeatedly. I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s so through the news I saw what was going on and loathed it, but I lived in a small town in Northern Michigan where the entire population was white. I missed a lot of the bad things going on in our country because my husband was stationed with the US Army in Germany and I was with him. In his company, at least, there was none of that, as the unit had to work together to keep each other alive, as they were all in jeopardy of going to Viet Nam. I have always felt that people should remain open to any other culture and color. It’s not that hard to research history to better understand situations and people. I’ve often wondered what those who call names and disrespect people of another color would do if the tables were turned? Thanks for a very interesting and thoughtful post!

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    • Travis says:

      Thank you Linda. I’ve seen some racism in Arkansas too. My grandmother who was from there, had black friends and to my knowledge never held a true racist thought used the N-word with einy-meany-miney-moe song.

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  6. Kaye George says:

    Since this discussion is continuing, I’d like to note something that fascinated me (not in a good way). My husband was sent to Malmstrom AFB in Montana after he came back from overseas (during Viet Nam). He was a missile launch officer and paired with a black man who was married to white woman. We four became fast friends. Their children attended school in Great Falls. I was so pleased to see that there was no prejudice against black people in Great Falls (probably because of all the military there and because they had never been there until recently), until I noticed that it was directed toward the Indians. Someone always has to be on the bottom, it seems! the Amish were almost publicly ridiculed one place we lived.

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    • Travis says:

      Interesting Kaye. It’s like humanity imitates hens with their pecking order. Somebody is always at the bottom. I hope we can do better than that. I’ve seen it in other cultures too. One nationality hates the other, sight unseen, as they list all the deficiencies and stereotypes they can gather.

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  7. Mike Staton says:

    Good column, Travis. Somewhat like Linda (although I didn’t live in Arkansas, just did consulting work at a paper mill there), I worked with papermakers in Arkansas in the 1990s, both black and white. I found many of the whites extremely racist, and open about it — as if they thought everyone else in the US thought just like them. Sometimes when I read comments after news stories, I see that many conservative whites like to twist things and call black leaders racist. That’s so surreal to me. When I was a kid in elementary school in Rialto, California, the NAACP integrated our neighborhood. I became great friends with a black kid, Tim, whose father was soldier who had served in Korea. One day a white kid called Tim the “N” word and he beat the crap out of the kid. I know violence isn’t the answer, but I can understand Tim’s rage.

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    • Travis says:

      Thank you Mike. Yeah, I’ve worked with a few people in the past who thought it was fine to be an open racist and I’d sympathize because I was white. I’ve also been the guy who didn’t laugh at a racist joke and got the “oh you’re one of them” lines.

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  8. Very powerful blog, Travis. Thank you for sharing your own experiences and for being so honest.

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  9. katewyland says:

    Unfortunately, it seems there always has to be a pecking order with “lower status” or outsiders being vilified. My folks grew up in a MI town that had a rigid hierarchy (early 1900’s). The Dutch ran the town and looked down on everyone else. Germans and northern Europeans were in the second tier, southern Europeans were down the list and Jews and Negroes at the bottom. I grew up hearing all the “unacceptable” slang names and attitudes. I was a late child and am so happy we moved to CA when I was 9 and got away from all that.

    But even in southern CA, I never encountered African-Americans until I entered UCLA. My eyes almost popped out of my head when a black girl walked into my dorm room on the “get acquainted” weekend. My Catholic school education had emphasized that discrimination was wrong, but that wasn’t what society was saying at the time. She was very nice and I had no problem with her personally, but was so very self-conscious being with her in public. How I wish both my world and I had been different.

    There are times when I’d agree that certain groups are being over-sensitive. But NOT in this case. If SAE condones this kind of behavior they deserve to be kicked off campus.

    Like

    • Travis says:

      I feel like we’re taking a few steps forward, but then stumble back in regards to race. Things have gotten better in some areas and worse in others.

      Like

  10. Good piece. I have never used the N-word in a story. I think I would find a way around it. (In fact on my website about presidents who owned slaves, I censored it out of a speech by Abraham Lincoln, although I made it clear that he said it.)

    One of the reasons I picked the college I went to was that it had no fraternities. If we closed them all down it would suit me fine.

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  11. Gayle Irwin says:

    Difficult but relevant and timely post, Travis. My father was raised in Louisiana and for he and his family the “N-word” was just the way they talked, never thinking about it. I always cringed, even as a young child. Thankfully, my dad has spent more years “north” and ‘west” and that word isn’t part of his vocabulary anymore. As I research more into our ancestry, I’ve discovered some fascinating things, kept quiet by my grandfather and his relatives — cant’ wait to share it with my father and those relatives still living. In fact, I’m considering a future blog post on “family secrets and discoveries!” Thanks for tackling this issue and enlightening and re-educating us.

    Like

  12. Nancy Jardine says:

    Travis- It’s definitely a sad indictment that the prejudice goes on. Scotland has had it’s own sort of ‘racial’ intolerance in the past but I’m glad to say my country is now a very multi- racial society and strives to make it clear that prejudice has no place in our modern world.

    Like

  13. sstamm625 says:

    Very thoughtful post, Travis. Words become weapons because of the mindless hate behind them. It’s disheartening to me that racism is still such a problem in this country. Thanks for posting this.

    Like

  14. S. J. Brown says:

    Growing up my parents sheltered us from events in the world and the struggles that were faced by people of any color besides white. This somehow led me to the belief that people are people. Their worth is not based on the color of their skin or the amount of money in their bank account, but rather by their deeds. I think the use of the N word or any other racist term is only called for when it is historically correct, or directly reflects an aspect of the story.

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