I Hate The Word Nigger

I hate the word “nigger”.

I also hate the words “gook” and “spic” and any other words that say “Because you are a particular skin color, I get to call you names that belittle you, tear you down, and grind you into the ground.”

I hate them so much that I’m calling them by name and calling them out for what they are: hate-filled words that destroy those they’re aimed at and debase those who use them.

Judging Words

When I first became a judge back in 1995 I attended a New Judge Orientation course. For five days we learned the basics of what it means to be a judge. We not only learned some basic courtroom techniques, like presiding over a jury trial and handling a large number of cases set on a single day, but also some of the fundamental aspects of judicial temperament.

We had four instructors for the week: an African American woman, a Hispanic man, an Asian American man, and a white man. All of them were experienced judges who were there to show us the ropes.

In one of the sessions they asked us to consider whether we’d ever been victimized because of our race, been the subject of racist name-calling, or somehow experienced racism. Three of our instructors, as you can imagine, had more than one story to tell. The hurdles they faced on the way to the positions they held in the judiciary were at times monumental.

The Asian American judge-instructor told us of a time when he was still a deputy district attorney and one of the top prosecutors in the office. He was in trial and the young defendant suddenly bolted from the courtroom and ran down the hall.

The prosecutor and the bailiff gave chase, with the prosecutor tackling the defendant to the floor. As he waited for the bailiff to reach down and put cuffs on the young man, he heard a voice behind him.

“Hey gook! Get off my son!”

Our teacher said that despite the fact he had attained one of the top positions in a large county’s District Attorney’s office, he burned with shame at that moment. The shame wasn’t rational but emotional, and it hurt so much that we could still see it when he told us the story years after the events.

One of our judge-instructors, though, was slightly puzzled at the story. “What did he call you?”

I said, “He called him a gook.”

“Gook? What’s that mean?”

“It’d be like calling you the n-word,” I told her.

“Oh. I’ve never heard that before.”

Everyone had room to learn in that class.

Racism and God’s People (part one)

Two writers I respect immensely recently wrote on what they’ve been learning about racism. Vivian Mabuni wrote on how she has come to understand better what is happening with her African American sisters and brothers in the faith, and Natasha Sistrunk Robinson has written about her developing understanding of what her Asian American fellow believers experience.

But what do I know about racism? Perhaps not much, compared to people of color. After all, I’m a white middle class man with one of the most powerful and prestigious positions in our society.

But I went to a diverse high school and it wasn’t unknown for whites to be excluded from some groups at times. It’s not much in the way of persecution when you compare it to what people with darker skin go through.

I’m married to a person of color too, though. I see how she’s sometimes treated. Not good.

Words Hurt

So why would I use the word “nigger” and not write “n-word” as I did in that orientation class? After all, many writers do for fear of offending anyone. If they must quote someone who has used the word they might reluctantly spell it out, but you can tell it was not lightly done.

I am not lightly spelling it out here either. I’ve thought about it, I’ve talked to God about it, and I am heartened by the fact that Natasha didn’t shy away from using the hateful words in her piece.

We do not live in a Harry Potter book where people fear He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Or if we did live in such a story, I hope we’d be like Harry and Professor Dumbledore, who feared not to call Voldemort by name. As Dumbledore told Harry, using the name seemed to take some of the power of fear out of it.

I write the words nigger and gook and spic so that I can call out what I hate and do it by name. I write the words so that if someone uses those words to hurt others, I can say, “Don’t use the word nigger. It hurts people.” In my view, saying “n-word” would not carry the same cautionary and corrective power.

This is not something to be done indiscriminately, but if someone uses one of the hate-filled words I’ve written here – or any of the many others that might be thrown at someone – I want to use the same word in talking to the person about why they should not do it again, ever.

Racism and God’s People (part two)

You might be asking what all this has to do with God’s people. It’s simple. The differences that culture says are so important just aren’t. There’s no qualification in God’s kingdom based on skin color, nationality or race:

God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. (Acts 10:34-35)

Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. (Colossians 3:11.)

The only qualification in God’s kingdom is Christ. It’s his name by which we are saved.

Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12.)

Let’s reject name-calling, and call on the only name that counts: Jesus, who is all and in all.

***

[Come back tomorrow for Adriana Kassner Cunningham’s moving guest post on racism, repentance and restoration in the family of God.]

***

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26 Responses to I Hate The Word Nigger

  1. Tuija says:

    Tim, thanks for writing so thoughtfully and prayerfully. (Thanks also for the previous posts on the same topics.) We need to be aware of what our words really mean and how they can affect others even when we meant no harm. It’s too easy to, for example, see a stereotype instead of a unique person, when you meet someone new coming from a different background.
    Incidentally, thanks also for writing the words themselves, offensive as they are. There were two I had not heard or seen before – always good to learn what to avoid and what the implications are if someone uses them.

    • Tim says:

      Seeing the stereotype and not the person – exactly, Tuija.I am so glad that God sees each of us as the people we are and doesn’t just lump us together.

  2. “We do not live in a Harry Potter book where people fear He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.” Not sure I agree with this statement for the very reason you said people do not spell out the n-word and the very reason you did. People actually do fear He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, if He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named can bring a lawsuit. Especially if they live in areas like Florida, NY or your state. The three largest states in the nation for lawsuits, with most civil suits being frivolous.

    There are many forms of discrimantion, hate speech and mistreatement. Being full Irish, mic is a degragorrty term, in certain parts of the country this is still used in a degratory way. There is no room for any kind of hate speech or discrimantation. Yet it esists in all races, in amongst races. For example different parts of the country of orgin, different shades of skin color.

    Yet discrimination and harsh language are not limited to race there are all types that range from different markings of identity, personality types, body types, intelligence degrees, sports ability (last one picked type), work ability (Believe it or not Tim the world I came out of most white collar guys are viewed as wimps, weak, never done a decent day’s work in their life.) Most small business owners have an inner hatred of big corporations. Different parts of the country, will reject other parts. Religious or Faith Tenets attack each other over their differences.

    I remember graduating High School because I grew up in a home where I abused, I buried myself in weights and football. Yet, I found myself staring often in the mirror, changing my routine because I got constantly picked on because my neck and lats were huge. It was not to years later I found out it was because they were trying to figure out how I got so big.

    Christ experinced this from the Jews in John 8:48-59. As the Smartians were looked upon much as Mexicans are now. As they attacked him and said “Aren’t you a Samaritan.”

    In truth Tim anything that causes us to examine ourselves, takes us out of our comfort zone, makes us feel threatened, different, smaller, unusual, out of place causes us to belittle, attack, demean, discrimante, take steps to make it or them smaller then we currently feel. We all do it and we need to read your post today. The worst of us do it claiming to do it in the name of doctrinal truth. While we should test all things, prove all things and hold fast to that which is right, we should do so without attacking or name calling. We may discover one day as Steve Brown says, “God may say one day, “You missed a few things there, you really blew it on that thing or that conference you had but come on in.” and I am glad”

    Sorry I took up so much space, it’s a subject dear to me, having experienced it personally, watching employees experience it and watching my son and daughter in law experience it with him being a dark skinned, Jamaican and us living in the South. Most of all thanks for reminding me of my own failures here, thank God for grace.

    • Tim says:

      That line about Harry Potter was supposed to refer to Christians, who have no need to fear, as opposed to the world at large which actually may live in such fear; perhaps I could have been clearer on that!

      Thanks for sharing your perspectives too, Pat, both in growing up and with your family now.

      Tim

      P.S. One quibble: you wrote “most civil suits being frivolous”, but my experience and that of other judges I’ve spoken too does not bear out that stereotype about lawsuits. 😉

      • That brings up an intresting point. There you have the difference of a business perspective and an attorney’s or judges, perspective. Having seen or heard the followings things, first hand from attorneys.

        1) Being sued for a brain tumor and my insurance company settling for 6,000 because the cost of litigation being too high.
        2) A customer who was a prominent attorney, world famous, top 100 attorneys in the nation . Telling me once afer getting a new brand BMW, he was going to get another one. That the dealer would gladly do it, even though admitting there was nothing wrong with the car. When asked about it, his reply was “I’m an attorney, trust me, they will gladly do it.”
        3) Had another customer who was a partner in a managed health care system who was an attorney. I asked him once who was at fault for the mess our health care system was in. Rising insurance costs, huge medical bills, so forth. His reply; “I’m the perfect person to ask” I said “I know that’s why I asked you” to which he further stated. “I’m an attorney who hires doctors. Attorneys are at fault, for all the frivolous lawsuits, they bring. The reason a company like ours exisits is that doctors can no longer afford malpractice insurance, in place like Florida, NY and CAl on their own. It is one of the reason why there is a coming shortage of primary care doctors and a rise in physician assistants.” To which I shared point number I list here and he said “Exactly”

        So I think you will find the business and the medical world disagreeing with you. At least that has been my perspective coming out of South Florida from those I know and have talked to.

        I understand the attorney’s and judicial perspective of protection, though. Had another customer, my personal attorney put it this way. “There are a lot of incompetent doctors graduating from school placing the average public at risk, There are a lot of companies out there looking for a profit at the expense of the safety of others. These are the areas I serve in and why. To which I replied “YES! There are a lot of attorneys graduating school searching for their big score, their next payday” to which he just simply replied “Touche'”

        • Tim says:

          Two points, Pat.

          First, the anecdotes you cite do not equate to ““most civil suits being frivolous”. They may equate to some people misusing the system, not most.

          Second, I’ve been a judge for over 18 years and have seen civil cases that cover a much broader range than the few limited areas of law and commerce you mention. It’s just not true that most of them were frivolous. Some ended up with no recovery for the person bringing the suit, but that is not the same as saying the suit itself was frivolous.

          If it were, then in criminal cases every time a case ended with an acquittal the argument would be that the DA filed frivolous charges. But that is not a proper analysis of criminal cases just as it is not a proper way to view civil cases.

  3. Karen Velez says:

    I live near Atlanta, Georgia., but I was born and raised in Chicago in the sixties, and our schools were integrated, so I was taught in school by people of color, and mr classmates and friends were people of color as well. I am married to a Hispanic man. I have had people call my husband and I names, and it was hurtful. But imagine my shock when, after moving to The Atlanta area, I took my first Marta train ride to the airport, and, the closer we got to downtown Atlanta, a large number of young African-Americans got on the train, and in loud conversations amongst themselves were calling each other the N word, and the B word, over and over again, even at the end of a sentence for some supposed emphasis! I was in shock! It would be unthinkable to me to even think, much less say those words, and here they were using those words freely, and often,,amongst themselves! Is this, in your opinion, as you said in your article, a way of taking the power away from a word by it’s frequent use? I just cannot understand how a racial group that worked so long and hard for civil rights and respect, could go back and call each other those horrible names!

    • Tim says:

      Good question, Karen. I don’t know the intent or the effect of their use of the word, but you might want to read Natasha’s series on name-calling (I linked one of her posts above) for some insights. All I know is that when I hear the word spoken by anyone it sounds wrong.

      • Tuija says:

        This is a very common occurrence. To put it short: you identify with a group, you take the derogatory word outsiders use of your group, and you start using it, as a means of group bonding and also to take away the word’s power to hurt. Yet, it’s still a hurtful word when an outsider uses it. Happens with a lot of groups, not just racial/ethnic groups. On the other hand, not everyone in the group will want to use the word for group bonding, because of everything they associate with the word. Apparently, this thing is particularly popular with young males. Karen, isn’t that what you also observed? Young people, mostly male, sort of bonding with each other and using those words?

        Apparently there’s even a concept for it: “co-opting”. I found this article by Susana Rinderle and I think it’s pretty informative:
        http://susanarinderle.com/2013/07/09/tips-for-good-white-people-how-come-they-can-say-n-r-to-each-other-but-i-cant-say-it/

  4. Jeannie says:

    This is so interesting, Tim. It says so much about the power of hateful words and the need to state them explicitly in order to show the evil inherent in them. I have a friend at church whom I dearly love and respect and whose heart is wholly committed to God, yet he says “retarded” and “gay” all the time. I haven’t had the courage to call him out on it yet, and that’s my fault.

    I also think of the rap song currently on the radio, “Same Love” — I won’t debate its overall message here, but it says something powerful about words too: “If I was gay, I would think hip-hop hates me: have you read the YouTube comments lately? ‘Man, that’s gay’ gets dropped on the daily; we become so numb to what we’re saying. A culture founded from oppression, yet we don’t have acceptance for ’em — call each other faggots behind the keys of a message board: a word rooted in hate, yet our genre still ignores it…” Kind of like Karen says above: I don’t understand how a culture oppressed by hate-filled words can still use hate-filled words in daily discourse. Maybe there is a reverse empowerment there that I just can’t see. But I agree with you that we have to be direct in calling out what we see as wrong.

    • Tim says:

      It’s finding the courage to speak out that is difficult, Jeannie. That’s where the power of the Holy Spirit is necessary. Prayer leads to effective work in this problem as everywhere else, I figure.

  5. Aimee Byrd says:

    There was some interaction on FB this weekend about an article that was pointing out the most racist places to live. It was based on a poll asking how people feel if a neighbor of a different race moves in. But a commenter said that is such a bad indicator, and that the real question should be, “How would you feel if your child wanted to marry someone of a different race.” I thought that was a searching question.
    Tim, do you experience discrimination for being in a biracial marriage?

    • Tim says:

      I’ve had a couple of inappropriate comments directed at me, but not discrimination in the sense that it had an impact on what I could or couldn’t do. On the other hand, I’ve seen my wife treated in ways that I suspect are based on her skin color. You’d think being sixth generation American in her family would mean she wouldn’t have to face that, but it’s still an issue.

  6. Tim thanks for the wisdom and aknolwedged experience. Tim I am also glad there are ones in the legal profession like you. If the word most brough offense then for that I apoologize and am sorry, did not mean to.

    Though Tim you mentioned the anecdotes I bring up do not equate for most. Tim space is limited I think and again if the word most brought offense and the feeling of the need to defend, I am sorry.. I can truly understand the pride of craftsman ship, pride of proffession (Pride is not always bad!) for I have stood there myself many times myself now in two proffessions.

    I could list several more anecdotes as you call them Such as my attorney telling me he would break relationship with me for working for a certain attorney who he deemed “unfit because of the way he practiced.” However these anecdotes involve the words, the actions of those expressed in the legal trade which I think would carry even more weight. The first time I even considred the word frivolous was when I asked the attorney who hired doctors that question, and he used it, along with the word most.

    So let us agree that in every proffession there are miscarriages, injustices, sloppy trade work, and carelessness. Those who are mre concerned with being right, making a dollar or getting through the task then they are craftsmanship. Then thank you for pionting out where those who look at their own proffession in such a way may be wrong.

    Again let me apologize for any offense or causing the feeling to defend.

  7. Erica M. says:

    What saddens me most is when I see people treating their fellow Christians badly based on their appearance or ethnicity. When I was a kid, my dad arranged a revival at our church and invited a black pastor from about an hour away. He gave a wonderful sermon, but I was shocked to hear the comments people made about him afterward. Here was a man who came to teach us more about God, and their response was disgust because of the color his skin. I was ashamed of my church that day. It was a stark reminder that Christians will never be perfect, but also a reminder for me to guard my heart against absorbing these kinds of notions.

    • Tim says:

      Erica, that sounds like a horrible experience, even for those who were the ones perpetrating it. I think the fact that it bothered you is a sign that the Holy spirit was working in your heart. You experienced a Godly shame at what happened there.

  8. christine says:

    I wish I had the time and energy to write all the thoughts I have on this subject. I’m not a writer. I’m a white woman, married to a black man for many many years. In the 60’s my parents adopted 7 of my siblings. Four of my siblings are black. We lived in the very white Pacific Northwest. My husband was raised in Louisiana. For the past 20 years we’ve lived in various cities in the south…Alabama, Tennessee and now Texas. I’ve seen plenty of racism and hatred (a cross burned on my parent’s lawn, our cars vandalized with racial slurs spray painted on them and the not-so-subtle retail security that tends to follow us regardless of how professionally dressed my husband is). I understand black people who use the “n-word” (I don’t). Unfortunately the concept that it takes away the power of the hate by using it casually doesn’t end up working…there is still plenty of anger at anyone “outside” using it. There is a process taking place in the community to push the use of the word out…exposing it for what it is and not what we might want to change it into.

    When the Kingdom comes there will be no need for the defenses that we put up because of our fallenness. But today, right where we are, the love of God prevails.

    I will read with interest the articles to come. The body has much to learn and the most resistance comes from the white members who remain blind to the privilege they have in our country. There is a high level of denial.

    • Tim says:

      “But today, right where we are, the love of God prevails.” I am so thankful for his grace and redemption, Christine. Thank you for helping us see through your own experience.

      Tim

      P.S. You might like this post on White Privilege.

  9. Great post Tim! I admit it caught my eye and I had to read it. To me the evolution of the word (N-word) is very interesting. From a form of oppression, to my own race using it in conversations to each other, to whether you say it with an -er or -a at the end, to it being used between whites to imply something negative. I think hip-hop culture plays a lot in all this as well. As rap and hip-hop became popular among all races and in the suburbs, the word became more and more accepted among youth of all ages. Knowledge of the true meaning became lost. So can the word have a positive meaning? Is it a positive greeting among two African American friends? Is it a positive greeting between two people of different races? Is it a positive greeting between two non African Americans? I personally do not like the word and would like to see us move on and past the word, however; the question of how we do that is big.
    There is so much more to this topic that I could say. Great posts Tim!
    – Rodney

    • Tim says:

      Thanks, Rodney. Natasha Robinson has a lot of insight on it from an insider’s view as well in her series (I linked one of her posts above).

      On the issue of it being positive among certain users, I think one issue is that has the potential to become exclusionary: if only certain people can use it positively and others may not be allowed, no matter their good intentions, that does not advance the kingdom of God.

      It’s a complicated issue, and in the body of Christ I think one we need to grapple with for the sake of our fellow believers and for the sake of those we are trying to reach with the gospel.

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  11. Shalini says:

    Tim, this is a very interesting discussion. Reminds you of how ugly (and universal) discrimination is. Closer home, many in India have an obsession with white skin that borders on the ridiculous. You can’t imagine how extravagant the Ad spend on fairness creams and magic cures for a lighter skin (and thereby enhanced sex appeal!)is. It would have been laughable – had it not been so pathetic. Sadly, many Christians are not above this form of discrimination. Sentences such as ‘He’s dark skinned but nice’ are very common. I’ve even heard someone say ‘She’s dark, but intelligent”. Nope, i didn’t make those up! So while we may not use words like the ‘n’ word, discriminate on the basis of color, we do. I guess till we learn to view others as image bearers of God, we will be enslaved to these forms of prejudices and discrimination. God help us indeed!

    • Tim says:

      Good points, Shalini, and thanks for the insights on what’s happening in India too. Discrimination doesn’t have to be blatant to be powerful.

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