Hand Me that Bowl of Nigger Toes

“Hand me that bowl of Nigger toes,” my grandfather shouted at me across a large oak table filled with family and holiday dressings for Thanksgiving dinner.

I must’ve been around eight-years-old at the time and before I could ask him — what bowl of who — his two daughters, one of them my mother, shouted back at him, “Dad! We don’t talk like that here!” He shrugged them off and pointed at me, “There, boy. By your hand. Shove over that bowl of Nigger toes!”

It was only years later that I learned “Nigger toes” are actually Brazil nuts — and I’ve never been able to touch one or eat one since that infamous Thanksgiving dinner.

My grandfather was an educated man, a civic leader, a pharmacist, and yet he called Brazil nuts “Nigger toes” — and I know he didn’t invent that phrase even though he employed it regularly and commonly as if he were talking about the weather.

Our conversation here on this Urban Semiotic blog last Friday concerning “The Definition of Nigger, Niggle, Niggly” made me wonder how Racism is born, fomented and propagated. We know Racism is taught — but what happens after the lessons are learned?

Does a pharmacist grandfather pass down the idea that Brazil nuts are “Nigger toes” to his young grandson as a value worth remembering and repeating? My feeling is if you asked my grandfather if he were a Racist, he would claim he was not.

Growing up in a Lily-White Nebraska — where the Black population was non-existent except in big urban cores like Omaha and smaller, poorer, niches in Lincoln — it was easy to be a Racist while claiming not to be one in the heart of farmland and alfalfa and pigs and corn, where no faces of color were seen for miles in any direction and there was no challenge of thought. Strangers were never welcome and if you had dark skin, you were a stranger by default and demonized in order to keep you out. If your last name wasn’t German or Czech you were not to be trusted.

If you wanted to see dark skin color, and you lived in middle Nebraska, you had to drive four hours East to Omaha — and you did your sightseeing in the car. You never mingled with “them.”

You only observed them — objectified them — and made up stories about them and their wealthy lives on welfare while you “slaved” hard in the hot sun tilling the land. If you traveled to an international hub like Atlanta, then you were overwhelmed with all the “jigaboos” who were “walking around freely” — “Dad! We don’t talk like that here!” — and you locked your car door with one finger while wildly pointing with the other.

I remember not being scared of my grandfather’s objectification of Blacks, but rather by the reaction of my mother to my grandfather’s labeling of Blacks. She was overwhelmed and outraged — as was her sister — and she made it entirely clear that sort of talk was not welcome or acceptable at any time anywhere. I can’t remember my mother ever calling anyone a “jigaboo” and while she never called them “Nigger toes” she did enjoy eating a Brazil nut or two.

Now I’m left to wonder about Racism and the family. Values and morals are handed down from one generation to another and yet there are some prejudices that are handed down and accepted — someone taught my grandfather his Racist vocabulary — and some are rejected: Someone taught my mother and her sister not to repeat or accept what they heard growing up at home.

Does Racism education require extrication of the body from the values? My grandfather was born, and lived most of his life, around an 11 mile radius in the center of a closed-community Nebraska — while my mother and her sister moved from that middle core and landed three hours East in Lincoln.

My mother has lived all of her post-high school life in Lincoln. Her sister has lived all over the world and currently resides in the South. Does Racism demand proximity for propagation of the hate? Or can those vital moral values — skewed or not by ignorance and non-exposure — still haunt you miles away from home?

45 comments

  • LOL! My grandparents called them the same thing. I don’t even think they really “put it together”; it was just what the nut was named. Therein may lay a seed of problem. While my grandparents were quietly bigoted, I can pretty much be sure that they didn’t call Brazil nuts Nigger Toes for that reason. They called them that because that was the American name for those thing – at least in overwhelmingly comment parlance if not in lexiconic fact.
    A racist semiotic entered into the language and was blithely used without ill intent by a whole generation. The phrase held no significance or power to the users, but apparently did to many listeners.
    Then again, how different is it from the urban Blacks’ use of Nigger and Ho amongst and in reference to themselves?

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  • jonolan —
    Yes, doing a search on “Nigger toes” brings a bounty of returns:
    http://www.google.com/search?q=%22nigger+toes
    I’m not sure if ignorance is enough of a protection against the Racism if you’ve been corrected and told why “Nigger toes” isn’t an acceptable label for Brazil Nuts. Is “African-American toes” or “Black toes” or “Darkie toes” any better? Hardly!
    I think ignorance begs repercussion when a brighter, higher path is pointed out and offered and one instead prefers to choose to wallow in the ordinary and the safe because to venture away would mean a threat to the common core and that sort of change is deemed too hard and too far to learn.
    I don’t accept the urban Black use of “Nigger” and “Ho” as proper behavior either — those terms are unacceptable in any real life context and those words enhance and encourage boorish behavior when many of them know better and would never call their mothers those awful names. I think we can safely argue no ordinary Black son would say about his loving mother: “My mother’s a Nigger Ho.” Not going to happen.

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  • David,
    Who would have corrected them? In my grandparents’ day it was common parlance and no thought was given to it’s hatefulness. Even when I was growing up we wouldn’t have “corrected” them when they used the phrase; respect for our elders overrode any desire to change their behavior. In public we would have just been quietly embarrassed at most.
    Remember times are different now. Children will chide their parents for atavistic behavior. My generation and my parents’ generation wouldn’t so.

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  • Hi jonolan —
    Right. If no correction is given you can’t hold them to knowing any better. But in my example my grandfather’s daughters bluntly told him that phrase wasn’t appropriate and that he was wrongly influencing his grandchildren but he refused to change. That, for me anyway, is where the fine line between knowing and ignoring is drawn and the lines of Racism begin to form: You know better, but you don’t care.

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  • I love the way this story reflects a time of change.
    However – Devil’s Advocate sayeth ………
    Your grandfather called the Brazil nuts what he had always called them – what he had been taught as a child and what he had grown up with.
    You do not say what age he was when this incident occurred .
    You do not say if his daughters took the time to take him aside and explain that times were changing and that it was no longer acceptable to refer to Brazil nuts in such a way and why.
    There is a certain stubbornness in older people especially with ingrained behavior and language – along with a reluctance to change – especially if no explanation is given for that change.
    I would be interested to know how and where this story sits on the “Racism awareness” time – line. When was the term racist first used – when did it start being addressed in society? etc etc
    I agree with you here – “I don’t accept the urban Black use of “Nigger” and “Ho” as proper behavior either ” totally – the trouble is that some of them do find it acceptable.
    ( BTW I am not surprised you never eat “Nigger Toes” – they sound disgusting ! – just as anyone else’s toes would.)

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  • Hi Nicola!
    Yes, that’s how he knew the nuts, but his daughters educated him plenty of times and, to my mind, one public admonition in front of the grandchildren is enough because the dam of ignorance has been forever forged. “Nigger” was never a term of endearment in any culture in middle Nebraska.
    My grandfather must’ve been around 70 when this happened when I was eight. Does age and place excuse Racism once you’ve been told to knock it off?
    Brazil nuts — in their natural toes form — are incredibly hard to successfully crack without ruining the meat inside, but my family loves the art of cracking nuts in their shells.
    I never got into it. The whole process is messy and unfulfilling. Buying a bag of walnut meat is much more rewarding than cracking your own and biting down on hard pieces not meant for your mouth.

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  • When you were 8 – 70 was a good age – probably older than the “life expectancy” for the time.
    I think that kind of age AT that time and in those circumstances can mitigate as opposed to excuse his reluctance to change.
    My father at a similar age could never understand all the fuss ( and banning ) of Golliwogs.
    http://www.sterlingtimes.co.uk/golliwog.htm gives some background.

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  • Nicola!
    You’re right! Our ages were amazing and while my grandfather didn’t live as long as he should’ve his sister is still alive at 99!
    That Golliwog page is amazing. Wow! What an eyeful! Your father’s experience is quite telling and interesting in the context of today’s article!

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  • “Eeny meeny miney mo…”

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  • Ouch, Karvain!
    I can feel the punch of the rest of that phrase from my childhood:

    Catch a Nigger by the toe.
    If he hollers, let him go.

    http://www.phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/18/messages/776.html
    On the elementary school playground we substituted “Monkey” for “Nigger” which is probably just as insulting now that I think about it…
    I don’t buy the argument of that URL I quoted that the phrase is about the Devil. It may have been at one time, but it now has a much more rancid colloquial meaning and historic inheritance.

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  • I feel a similar reaction of disgust and anger whenever people in this state use racist epithets to refer to Mexicans, be they of the illegal immigrant variety or not. It is often assumed that they are of the former rather than the latter, particularly if they appear to do something of the uneducated variety, such as trying to to out through an ‘in’ door, or driving poorly.

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  • That is an excellent and insightful comment, Gordon, and you’re right on target with your appropriate and connected tangent of outrage.
    You’re much too smart, powerful, handsome, keen and insightful to not be commenting here every single day on everything! Snap into your destiny old friend! :wink:

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  • Oh, you only know I’m handsome because my photograph was taken in the last year. How we wish we could see what you look like now :P

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  • Hello Gordon!
    My most recent capture is right here:
    http://boles.com/avatars/dsimp-221.png
    We thank you!
    P.S.
    THIS IS NOT THE SORT OF COMMENTING WE ARE SEEKING FROM YOU!

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  • Ah, and that is not the kind of likeness we seek from you!
    I should comment every day on everything. The recent Jewish holidays have precluded me from being able to read everything and my inner censor – the one that says “why say that, that seems like a repetition of what everyone else has said” sometimes hits me at the threshold of commenting! however, I will try to fight back. :)

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  • Gordon!
    Just do what the rest of us do: Spew without forethought; spout without filter! :mrgreen:
    It doesn’t matter if what you say has already been “said” because you won’t argue it the same way.

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  • I’m sick of hearing this word. Writing about it. Reading about it. And while we are at it, yes. Racism is taught by your family’s hand but it is up to the individual to decide as they get older what is right from wrong–many learn. And even more are too ignorant to seek education of what is wrong. That said, my father also used this term for Brazil nuts. What does that really say then? And my father is quite educated. He learned it somewhere…obviously as a child living in Lubbock where the racial lines are never blurred. There is also that and the term “nigger-lipping” when somone puts too much of their mouth on a drink. And that was said to me while at party where this cowboy, bless him because he didn’t have a clue, said that as one of the people at the table took a long drink of the whisky we were sharing. I was outraged. However, we discussed it. And come to find out, of course, that was a common thing to hear in his family. He felt foolish and quite embarrassed. And sad he hurt me. I hope to this day he remembers that and continues to learn from it.

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  • I am from St. Joeseph, MO, and agree about the racism of Midwestern whites toward any other races, which were barely present in that town. But I wonder why racism was so familiar, and anti-Semitism was very unfamiliar there…I think it’s more common around places with a more visible Jewish community. Perhaps segregated societies just hate whomever they can easily perceive as different from them.

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  • Thanks for the comment, Arm. That phrase that insulted you is a new one for me.

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  • kc —
    I wonder if it has to do with social visibility? It is not always easy to identify a “Jew” while someone with darker skin color than the majority can never really hide.

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  • Are you kidding. Did a conversation just transpire about what black folks would call them. We call them Brazil nuts. And as I stated before, my father used to call them the other offensive phrase. But when you have people actually asking, this just gets ridiculous.

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  • Arm Jerker,
    I also brought up the phrase “common parlance” so questions about what Blacks of that generation called Brazil nuts was actually on point.

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  • David,
    You ask if racism could be conveyed non-verbally. I believe it can. You’ve experienced it yourself with the “nigger tax”. My husband and I have moved to a much smaller city in Alabama. I also believe that racism is taught at a young age. While in the grocery store yesterday, a Caucasian infant was smiling and waving at me from his mother’s shopping cart. I smiled and waved back. His mother glared at me as though I had somehow poisoned him by looking at him. Then she glared at him as though she wanted to throw his “nigger-loving” self away. The she glared at his older siblings – approximately 4 and 7 – as though to tell them don’t even think about speaking. They turned they eyes toward the ground and wouldn’t even look at me. I felt quite uncomfortable, but I grew up as a hospitable Southern woman and said, “hello” to which she replied, “hmph!” and sped off around the corner to the next aisle.

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  • How do you know it was your skin color that created that response? Perhaps you look untrustworthy or you have an evil demeanor? I can give you plenty of examples using your examples of that kind of insensitivity for White on White interaction.
    Now, we know you know what you know — but how do you convince others that it’s your skin and not something else that is getting you that unkind sort of heat?
    I remember back in graduate school when I was walking home on an abandoned Columbia University street with my friend Bob late at night after we’d finished a show. He was very out and loud and fey and as we walked back to our apartments — me to my wife, he to his dogs — a gang of five kids came upon us and called us fags and other awful names and my instinct was to correct them, approach them, teach them and if that didn’t work, then beat them up for labeling me with something I was not.
    Before I could do any of that, however, Bob grabbed me my the elbow and using every bit of muscle he had and his deepest, most threatening, “man voice” told me to “keep walking” and to not look back. He was right to move on and only fight if attacked first and I bet that was a painful lesson to learn. That was an eye-opener…

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  • I’m a young teacher and have a young, sweet looking face – or so I’ve been told by the principals I have taught under. I have an easy-going demeanor. I probably looked more afraid than anything because I feel like a fish out of water in this new town.

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  • David,
    BTW — I know the difference between rude and racist very well. I grew up in the South. I am not “playing the race card”.

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  • Thanks for the clarification. There are a lot of people who read these articles and comments but never ask what, to them, is an obvious question — so sometimes I need to predict and then ask the obvious in order to allay any silent wondering.

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  • This may never been seen, as it’s been more than a year since the last post, but I have to share my story.
    My parents were born and raised in Pennsylvania, but moved to Miami after WWII and my father was released from a German prison camp. One of his best friends in that camp was a black man. Upon moving to Miami, my parents lived for two years with their two children, ages 2 and 1 (my older brother and sister), in a 6’x8′ trailer with a shack of the same size attached. During this time my father built the house they would live in for the next 58 years. He built it solely by himself, except for the roof – he needed help for that and asked for the help of a black co-worker, a friend. It took them 3 months to finish the roofing job (2 years for the whole house).
    I say all this to let you know my father was not prejudiced, and their 6 children were never raised to be prejudiced. (I remember the grocery stores back then having two water fountains – one for “whites” and one for “blacks” – I drank from whichever one was available. In school I had neither “white” friends nor “black” friends… just “friends.”) However, my father called Brazil nuts “nigger toes”, and they were his favorite.
    I am a 56-year-old woman and I still call them, in my own home, “nigger toes.” I once slipped and called them that when our grandchildren were visiting. I explained how the nut came to be called that, but that “nigger” is NOT an acceptable term for a black person, because it is seen as derogatory. But I still call the nuts that because it brings back fond memories of my wonderful, caring father and his love for the nuts.

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    • So, here is my question. Which is more important to you? Your use of the word as a “fond memory” of your no doubt, loving father, or the elimination of the use of the word in order to ensure that no one else is offended? I came upon this post because this afternoon someone used the pejorative slang for the nut outside my office door –which was open. It was clearly an unintentional eavesdrop. I don’t think it was malicious at all. However, I am a firm believer that one should speak the same way they do in “private” as they do in public lest they turn someone’s memory of them sour. In your case it seems to be a sweet memory for a sour memory. I am sure you could remember your pappa’s love for Brazilian nuts minus the controversy. Couldn’t you? I think somethings are okay to let go for the greater picture. Telling your grandchildren this is not an okay word to call people, but then saying the word to describe what are said to look like african-american toes, seems to me to be a bit confusing. The description begs for the correlation of the two being synonymous –and you being alright with it. Just a thought.
      “Everything is permissible”–but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible”–but not everything is constructive. 1st Corinthians 10:23 (a useful saying, whether you’re religious or not) Cheers!

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  • I appreciate your comment, Coletta. It’s amazing how words — even negative words — can still have powerful meaning and warmth from a past that more readily accepted them compared to our now.

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  • My mother said that her grandpa called Brazil nuts that, too.

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  • Well, my folks called them that when I was younger too. Me and my brother grew up in rural KY. My dad was a huge racist and even had members of the KKK over for dinner during the holidays or after church. I used the word nigger all the time and didn’t really harbor any hate or ill will. I was just taught that blacks where evil and less than human. Faster forward to me and my brother’s adult years. He is now married to a black woman. Me, I don’t want to live near them. I don’t want to know about their culture. I don’t want to hear their music and I don’t want to be around them when they are talking because I can’t understand them and I can’t hear my own conversation.

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    • I forgot to add this to my last post. I don’t want to be around the ghetto culture. If you can actually speak English and are polite I don’t have an issue with you. Just like no one wants to hang around some redneck blaring hate speech either.

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    • I’m sorry that you were raised with an such a silly hate for a group of people, black or not. It’s great to know that your brother was able to determine what was right through what he had been taught all of his life. A skin color does not make you evil. It’s the heart. You know that there is something wrong with the way you feel towards blacks and the only person who suffers from it is you. It defines you. Black people now days will see you, and keep moving forward while laughing at your stupidity. You will be the only one boiling and allowing your feelings to ruin your day, and chances at experiencing something bigger than yourself. It will never be a loss for the hater, only the hater. Not all black people sound like idiots, and like rap music and are loud and common. But if you never spend time around them, you’d never know it. And you don’t have to. (Obviously) We will still go on apart from the stereo type just fine without the approval of people like you, because we don’t need it. We will be your boss, and your neighbor, your in-laws, your friends’s friends and co-workers, and your political leaders….and YOU, and people like you, will be the only ones bothered. And we will LAUGH at how silly you are, and be grieved at your ignorance…But the only person who really suffers…Is you. That’s a horrid way to live your life.

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  • I read this entire thread… every word of it. I have NEVER read a more respectful, intelligent thread on the Web! Wow!!!! I’m blown away by the civility and sensitity expressed here! Thanks to all of you so much! (And, this, as I just ate a Brazil nut!!!!!!) You are all awesome!

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  • Looking at posts like this, at what people did and said in the face of hate, disgusts me. I feel bad for those who have used this term to describe a food, or and other racially slurring term. Because its stupid, and un called for. Weather racism was taught to you by some one you respected and love, or not, it’s wrong. People we love can be wrong too. Remember that. It’s up to each individual to continue the crazy cycle or break it. Also, not all black people use terms like “nigger” towards each other. Just like all white people don’t refer to each other as “red necks”. Lets get smart people.

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    • ‘Nique, I wanted to comment in reply to your posts in order to show my support. Just yesterday, I was feeling light of spirit and was having an animated conversation with the owner of my urban neighborhood’s pet shop. Behind me two young men were talking a bit loud, and then one of them, in referring to a man who swans’t present, said “This nigga … ” I turned around and looked at the speaker with repulsion. He was of South Asian descent, possibly Indian or Pakistani, and was no older than eighteen. (I had a half-day at work and arrived at the pet shop when schools were letting out.) So I turned to the pet shop owner, an older, Puerto Rican gentleman, and said, “I really find the ‘n’ word offensive, and the way young people use that word [‘nigga’ or ‘nigger’] today is perpetuating a word born and bred of hatred in this country and then exported to other countries.” He agreed, shaking his head in disgust, then said, “I’ve told young people coming in here not to use racial epithets.” This man was called the “n” word and some other ugly words heard in West Side Story, which, we both agreed, contained nice dance sequences and choreography but painful words that unfortunately were inflicted on Puerto Rican people and other Latinos who were new immigrants in America in the 1950s and 1960s. Regrettably all racial epithets are experiencing a renaissance, and this nation (U.S.A.) could be in for a civil war waged by white supremacists against people of color (aka brown people). The thing is: As we continue to socialize with Other (i.e., a person outside of the “race’ to which U.S. society says you belong) and come together — spiritually and literally — the browner America will become. And let us not forget that many white Americans, no matter which region they were born, are African American or Black based on this country’s definition of the One-Drop Rule. … Anyhoo, I would love to see the “n” word and all other racial epithets die in my lifetime. Welcome to the browning of America.

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  • I couldn’t believe this post so I quickly decided to follow your blog. I had never even heard the term N T until it was used in a very funny episode of Louis C.K. I always called them brazil nuts and never thought any more about it growing up and right up until I saw that episode. In it, Louis and his daughters visit one of his elderly aunts, someone he hasn’t seen in decades apparently. While they are there, this very elderly woman (she appears to be in her late 80’s) asked Louis and his kids if they’d like some “nigger toes” in a bowl of nuts that she has. The daughters are pretty horrified and the oldest takes Louis off and says, “Dad, you always say we shouldn’t use the N word and here she is, using it!” and of course Louis feels conflicted – his daughter’s right, but this is an old woman and really he doesn’t have that much of a relationship with her – hey, it may be the very last time they see each other. So at first he tells the daughter, “Look, she’s old, just ignore it and maybe it’ll stop” and then, after another inquiry by the elderly aunt, the daughter tries to get her dad to see that this is wrong, and finally Louis relents, saying, “Look, you’re right. Next time, point out that she shouldn’t use that word.” They go back into the parlor and the aunt decides to go to the kitchen for something. In a moment, there’s a big thump and when Louis goes out to the kitchen, the aunt is quite dead. Now he feels guilty for not visiting more, and maybe even for not getting her schooled that she shouldn’t say N T. It’s a very funny episode although in my telling it doesn’t sound like it (sorry).

    But ever after, I can’t NOT think N T every time we buy nuts. Good grief. And I never even had heard it before.

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    • Thank you for your comment!

      I’ve wondered why my “Nigger Toes” article has been so popular for so long — it’s always been an oddity to me because it’s such a strange topic, but now, with your fine comment, I’m beginning to see that my 2007 article may have been ripped off by Ellen and Louis C.K. as well!

      And then we have the visit itself, in which it turns out that the wonder of history that Lilly and Jane are being exposed to is vintage early 20th-century racism. The scene plays it out deftly, putting Louie in the situation of both dutiful nephew and protective father. First Ellen refers to a dish of Brazil nuts as “nigger toes,” and while Louie is mortified, he also decides that this is a figure of speech from an elderly woman who he’s not going to be able to change.

      http://entertainment.time.com/2011/07/22/louie-watch-your-beloved-racist-aunt/

      There’s no such thing as a coincidence, and if provenance has any bearing on the matter, I beat them both to the Nigger Toes punch as anyone with a Google search in hand can divine on their own!

      We all know “reality” TV and TV talk shows are pre-written, planned, and non-spontaneous, so their faux outrage has no bearing in the reality of who really came first.

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