If you are easily offended by history, and the muscle memory mnemonics of words like — nigger — then you should not read the rest of this article. Over the many decades we’ve been publishing original work online, one word keeps popping back up for examination in various memes. Yes, that word is — “the N-word” — and we just call it like it is here, because that’s how Nigger has been used in the context of life beyond the Uncanny Valley.

I’ve done a lot of college and university teaching on the East Coast, and many of my students are social minorities and, as part of the colloquial experience of their day, the word “Nigger” can be employed as an insult, a term of endearment and, sometimes, as a response cry.

When Nigger is employed by non-Blacks with evil intention — I don’t judge status of origin when it comes to the “Black” label meme, for they may have been born in Africa, or Puerto Rico, or Germany, or Jamaica, or the USA, or wherever — it is the intentional sting of the word as employed that matters because it is a negative cudgel wielded by the weight of its history in striking.

Today’s story is inspired by a former student who shared her tale in an acting class where we were rediscovering irrevocable moments that transformed us. We were, safely, recalling the power of that experience.

She started by telling us she was born in the Bronx, but she had “old family” down South in Mississippi. The experience happened to her in 2006.

She was visiting Mississippi one summer and happened into an old time candle store. Her Bronx family had warned her “things were different down there” and while she didn’t know what they meant, she was soon to feel it.

My student was alone. The only other person in the store was the shopkeep who happened to be a middle-aged White woman.

My student went to the register to buy a candle, and the shopkeep coldly refused to acknowledge her.

STUDENT: Excuse me. I’d like to buy this candle.

SHOPKEEP: Wait your turn.

My student, a smart, and talented, tall Black woman — who never raised her voice or sought out an argument for as long as I’ve known her — immediately felt the icy sting of her skin in being told to wait.

She’d never felt that sort of panic before while growing up in the Bronx.

Sure, she’d dealt with haters and Racism all her life, but this was something different.  This was new, and unfamiliar, but intimately recognizable.

STUDENT: What am I waiting for? I’m the only one here.

The shopkeep looked up and gave her a stare and whispered, just loud enough to be heard:

SHOPKEEP: You’re not from around here, are you?

A shiver scuttled my student’s back and crawled down her spine. She may not have experienced that sort of direct hit before, but she was keenly aware of the rising fear creeping out her gut.

STUDENT: I’m from New York.

The shopkeep slapped the counter with her hand and exclaimed:

SHOPKEEP: I just knew it! It’s okay, dear, you just don’t know your place!

STUDENT: My place?

SHOPKEEP: You’re one of those Niggers from the North!

All sound stopped for my student. She blacked out a little. There was a buzzing in her ears as her blood pressure dropped.

STUDENT: Ma’am, what did you just call me?

The shopkeep stopped laughing and started backing away.

SHOPKEEP: We’re closed now. Now you go!

STUDENT: I asked you a question.

SHOPKEEP: See? Right there! Nigger from the North! You don’t know not to speak to me like that! You wait your turn! You will wait ’til I’m ready to see you, then! Southern Niggers know they role!

STUDENT: I’m not playing a role.

SHOPKEEP: Get out! Before I call the law!

STUDENT: Oh, I’m leaving.

SHOPKEEP: Don’t steal that candle, either!

My student smiled and slowly placed the candle on the countertop and walked to the door.

As she opened the door, my student looked back over her shoulder and whispered, just loud enough to be heard:

STUDENT: You’re goddamned right I’m a Nigger from the North — and you’ll never speak to me like that again.

We all cheered when she finished her story with that victorious line!

I couldn’t believe people still talked that way in the South — I’ve never called anyone a “nigger” in my life — but then I remembered growing up in the Midwest. Some around me spoke like that, and as an adult returning to visit, I have had to resist the temptation to self-identify with my student.

Yes, I have learned, that I too — a Lily-White Boy from Nebraska — am also now a Nigger from the North!

Growing up in the rural Midwest, I am from a place where Racist names aren’t always thought of that by the sayer — you speak what you hear and those terms never seem to leave you — even as you move away to another Coast for a fresh perspective on what was and what must be now.

Over the years, I have sometimes had to quietly inform some of my older White friends that Gay people aren’t “faggots” and Jews aren’t “Kikes” and the Spanish aren’t “Spics” and the Italians aren’t “Wops” and Gypsies don’t “Gyp” and you don’t refer to someone getting over on you as being “Japped.” I can say these things because I am a proud “Bohunk” and, now, because I am also a card carrying, “Nigger from the North!”

Yes, “I’m a Nigger from the North” is my new rallying cry — if that means I support free ideas, and equal treatment, and thoughtful persuasion in ability and argument against all Bigots and Racists!

It’s never an easy thing to offer a different label for people in order to try to help them be more of a human being and not a “human boring” — but if that means I have to tell them I’m a “Nigger from the North” when they get upset that I’m quietly, but privately, shattering their public bigotry — then I’m happy to catch that shiver.

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