One of the most beautiful passages in the classic Toni Morrison novel Beloved is when Baby Suggs, the mother-in-law of Sethe, the main character, is about to die. She retires to her bedroom to think about color.
"God puzzled her and she was too ashamed to say so." So she takes to her bed "to think about the colors of things."
"I want to think about something harmless in this world," she says, and "except for an occasional request for color," she utters nothing, silenced by color.
"'Bring me a little lavendar in, if you got any. Pink, if you don't.' And Sethe would oblige her with anything from fabric to her own tongue.... Took her a long time to finish with blue, then yellow, then green. She was well into pink when she died."
I cry every time I read this. These words are among the most powerful in all of literature, and they speak to me on so many levels. As with all excellent metaphors, it's open to interpretion. Does "color" actually refer to the ones you'd find in a box of crayons, which would be the obvious interpretation, or to those of human beings. The implication is there for anyone who is willing to see it.
"An advocate or supporter of racism; a person whose words or actions display racial prejudice or discrimination. Also in extended use: a person who is prejudiced against people of other nationalities."
That's the Oxford English Dictionary definition of "racist." With this in mind, the other day, still smarting from my enounter with the Alvaro Zicarelli, the racist Argentine, I posed the following question on Facebook:
"Have you ever used the N word? And if not, could extreme anger ever drive you to use it?
The responses ran the gamut, but the honesty of one, in particular, surprised me:
"Lets face it, you know people are going to lie about this answer!!! I, on the other hand, have said it! And no, it is not because I am prejudiced. I haven't ever directly said it to someone's face either, but who ever was with me at the time has heard it come out of my mouth."
So what I am being told is that just because you don't say it to the person it's intended to demean means you are not racist? Basically, you are a racist, a coward and delusional. To use the word "nigger," to think it, whether in private or in public, to somone's face or behind his or her back, means that you harbor racism within. To some degree, you consider black people to be inferior. Fact: You don't have to go around burning crosses to be racist. And for the record, I do believe that everyone, including myself, is, to some minute degree, prejudiced -- if not against blacks, against some other group.
Several people reasoned that when people are angry, blinded by fury, they are driven to hurt the person responsible for their rage in the worst way possible. This is understandable. But it's no excuse. It's still racism. And no matter how many black people you sleep with, how many you date, or how many friends you have who are black, once you use the word, whether in thought or in speech, you are racist. Yes, there are degrees of racism, and racism in people with violent or confrontational natures tends to be more dangerous, but in the end, racism is racism.
The same is true with pejorative expressions based on sexual preference. Years ago, during an argument with my brother, who is also gay, my sister called him a "faggot." I suspect that she has forgotten the incident (just as Alvaro Zicarelli has probably forgotten calling me a nigger and telling me that I should be picking cotton in Alabama), but I never did. From that moment on, I was never able to look at my sister without hearing her hurling that epithet at my brother and wondering what she really thought of me. I never forgave her for it. I haven't spoken to her in four years.
My other brother once directed the word at me during an argument by email. Words are dangerous things, and the written word is more treacherous than the spoken word. Once something is said, it's gone. Only the memory of it remains. But when you write it, we get to sit and look at it over and over, as it cuts deeper and deeper. "You're a stupid faggot that nobody likes," he wrote to me. This was three and a half years ago. I never spoke to him again.
But I digress slightly. Racism and homophobia are two sides of the same coin. Quite different, but related in an interesting way. I've often found that racism is particularly strong in the male gay community, which is disappointing, because they should know better. I never did much online dating when I lived in the United States, but my friend Rob, who is black, did, and he told me some disturbing things about what white guys put in their profiles. "No blacks." "Whites only."
I'd rather be asked about my penis size than read something like that. To me, it's aggressively racist. But like the person above, these guys probably wouldn't describe themselves as prejudiced. They'd explain it away with a tossed off "Sorry, that's just my preference." But why not leave race out of it and simply ignore the messages you receive from black guys as you would messages from white guys whom you find unattractive? Whether intentional or not, it excludes and demeans.
And what about guys who respond to those profiles? Are they racist by association? I think to a degree, yes. Why would a non-racist person give a second glance to someone who has a "whites only" rule when it comes to dating? Yes, I understand that preferences are preferences. But as soon as you write the words, "whites only," you have completely dismissed an entire group of people. And that, folks, is what prejudice, discrimination and racism is all about.
Unfortunately, as proven the other day by Alvaro Zicarelli, who was so casually racist in his response to my rejection, the "whites only" folks aren't the only enemy. Those who fetishize blacks are just as likely to harbor dangerous levels of racism. Because, when you get right down to it, fetishizing blacks indicates an over-awareness of race that really is at the root or racism. Rob told me an extremely disturbing story about a girl, who was white, whom he used to date. When he broke up with her, her response was "I should have known this would happen if I dated a nigger."
We are sleeping with the enemy. It makes me suspicious, fearful, of everyone who crosses my path. No, we never know what people are really thinking, which makes life both interesting and terrifying. But I've been dumped before. I cried. I threw things. I lashed out. But I never resorted to name calling.
In the end, the response of Rob's ex-girlfriend, of Alvaro Zicarelli, of everyone who dares to utter, or think, the N word, has nothing to do with me. If you've been sleeping with trash, or trying to sleep with trash -- and that, basically, sums up how anyone who uses that word views black people -- what does it say about you?