With some extra sleep due to weather conditions delaying work, but not so icy roads, I thought my day was off to a good start and I deserved to splurge on a chocolate granola something I was craving. With a few bucks in my handbag and about two extra minutes on the dash clock, I pulled into a gas station and set my mind into “get in, get out” mode.
Unfortunately, the gentleman in front of me was having some troubles with his card. He was only buying an energy drink. After the third swipe, I checked the total, weighing it against the minutes I knew I was pushing to being on time, and my computer mind shot out the answer, “I can get it.”
It wasn’t a particularly generous offer – it was just an energy drink, and it wasn’t about me being nice as much as me realizing I had the money (well, this was before I realized it was my last bit of cash until my next paycheck – whoops) and not the time.
The dark-skinned gentleman thanked me and hurried on his way while the clerk added my breakfast and counted change.
As I was on my way out the door, an older woman of ambiguous complexion and age leaned in as my hand reached for the push bar. I could smell the cigarette smoke in her hair.
“Nigger lovers don’t live very long these days.”
Had I been in less of a rush, I’m not sure how the rest of my day would have actually transpired, as she hit a nerve pretty directly by exposing her own outright bigotry and support of a pejorative. But I was in a hurry and entirely knocked off guard by what she had just said to me. My younger, less rushed self might have given to the sudden urge to hit her in the face. My less rushed, more mature self might have tested engagement in a more intellectual conversation. But my rushed current self only had the look of hideous disgust contort my face and the sharpest offering of my writer’s tongue, “I’d rather live a short life experiencing the love and beauty of all those I meet than restrict myself to the soullessness of your bigoted lifestyle.”
I threw the door open and marched to my car as she muttered something unintelligible in response in her croaky, tobacco laced throat, and drove away wishing I’d had better words, wishing I’d corrected her and told her “niggers” don’t exist except upon the tongue of evil.
The experience, however, pulled me taut and stuck with me for the rest of the day, bringing impatience into my classroom, frustration with most people that wanted to communicate with me beyond a few sentences, and a deep stress on my heart that kept my breaths shallow if I wasn’t paying attention.
This is far from the first time I’ve been referred to in such a way, and, with a relatively active social media presence and strong opinions, not even the worst of names. I’ve been directly threatened and intimidated. I’ve read the comments on threads, I’m aware of what happens in the world, what other people say and think of various other groups based on superficial artifacts – why was this isolated incident with a stranger bothering me so much?
I reminded myself of the world of people fighting for a change during part of my planning, gazing at the stacks of graded quiz corrections, and thought again about Tamir Rice.
Yesterday, I learned the child had actually survived the shooting for four minutes, but had lain there bleeding and fighting without any attention or assistance from the officers. Not once, but twice, the decision to take a life was made, and he, just a child, laid there seeing no one want to help him, seeing just how little his life mattered to these people. It had stunned me and I bawled my eyes out for a good part of the afternoon. How could a person be so lacking in any drop of compassion and make it so far in life?
I know evil exists, must exist, but that it can be so deeply dark and be allowed power – it’s just never easy to digest. I kept thinking to myself, “how?” I felt the same question arising in me about this woman’s statement, about the statements of many internet trolls I’ll never encounter.
What kind of life experiences must a person have to lead them to so willfully not only want to remove themselves from any association with that group, but to condemn any action or person that appears to support it? How can so much hatred and animosity be learned to the point of willful ignorance that blinds itself to the humanity of all of those around us? How can so much ignorance to a person’s character arise of the melanin content in a being? What makes these people look at men with braids or women with noses a little flat or children whose tongues break “standard” American English into a sort of Spanglish accented song and decide these superficial differences make them less than and unworthy of respect?
I get racism, as an institutionalized system. I understand why it happened (political power/fear) and why it’s perpetuated (political power/fear) and can see why so many people live ignorant to it up to a point in their lives (skewed history curriculum, developed by those in power, skewed media outlets, controlled by those in power, etc). But the outright decision, the choice to think or act vilely towards another for reasons of differences in race still eludes me. It’s not that I’m naive – it’s that I don’t understand how a person can be so heartless.
I sat and stared at the faces of my students in fifth period, actually engrossed and fascinated by our film about the human body systems. I thought about their minds, building new electric pathways with each image on the screen, crafting unique and surprisingly exploratory questions for our pause at the end of each segment, processing how these functions were all taking place in their own bodies in those moments. I looked at their faces, different shades of browns, their eyes shapes, the different ways they wore their hair. I thought about how they hug me at the beginning and end of each day, regardless of the frustrations we bring each other. I thought about how all of them are seeking love, just as I, just as their lighter complexioned peers, just as maybe that woman in the gas station once did.
I thought then too, how terribly empty my life would feel in this moment if I didn’t know each one of them, didn’t have the privilege of teaching them, didn’t let myself love them simply because they were black or if they had refused to accept me because I am not. I wondered on the lives of those that actually live this way, cutting themselves off from amazing people and experiences and love simply due to a bigotry. I wondered of the lives of those hurt by the people that deny them their right to humanity on simple basis.
We cannot lift up any piece of this world if we refuse to connect to it fully.
I am disgusted by the words of the woman, disgusted to have such a personal reminder of the ugliness that’s been fostered throughout so much of Western history, but realized I am also, in some sickly empathetic way, morally distressed at the idea of how many people are denied love to themselves and to others in marring the fabric of society with this kind of sickness that kills and oppresses. It exhausts me and makes me feel defeated against being someone that can do anything for my students, for the future.
If by “nigger” then, she meant men and women of much strength and beauty as my colleagues are, as my friends are, as my students will grow to be; if by “nigger,” she meant men and women of great perseverance and courage, as each generation gives testimony to being; and if by “nigger lover,” she meant someone who embraces the love of humanity and all the good we have to offer in our various cultures (and what exists of those that have been survived attempts of massacre), then a short life is one for me and a life lengthened through any other means, I willingly forsake. (I also forsake the use of that word, despite its appearance in this post)
I hope that in a future such encounter, I’ll be able to offer more from my tongue and hope that others have responses that perhaps strike a chance at healing whatever ways she and others have hurt themselves by creating these twisted realities in which loving and respecting one another is wicked. If you have thoughts on better responses to be prepared for such future instances, I’d love to know them.