Language is an incredibly powerful thing. Even single words can evoke strong feelings in us. There are words that can make us feel joyful, happy, sad, angry; even disgust and revulsion. However, there is one word that, as a white person, I cannot bring myself to write; let alone utter. It is now, more often than not, referred to as the “N” word.
There is someone, let’s call him Joe, that I’ve known for more than 20 years now, who has recently been subjected to this word. Joe is Black, of African Caribbean descent. So it is highly likely that he is descended from the people who were shipped over there and forced to work as slaves for white people. This period in our history is where the N word originated as a label and derogatory term for Black people.
Joe recently started a new job working in a unit for looked after young people. His charges, through no fault of their own, have some complex psychological issues. Which meant they could be quite challenging at times. They were very skilled at getting under the skin of their carers. In Joe’s case they were occasionally singing a current popular song and using the N word in the lyrics. Now in public Joe was used to occasionally hearing this word. He didn’t like it even when it was used by other black people under the heading of reclaiming the vernacular. So he decided that, as this was a working environment, he would bring it up as an issue with his line manager.
This is the point that everything went pear shaped for him. I think he expected some form of united front from a team of enlightened, educated, socially aware colleagues. Maybe a collective zero tolerance approach coupled with an education programme. Instead he found that the attitude of his line management seemed to be that he should develop a thicker skin. They even set up an informal role play where one of his managers used the N word to his face and then asked him how he was going to handle it. I should make it clear at this point that everyone else in this working environment is white.
What’s sad and bad about this scenario is the lack of recognition that, given that he is the victim in this situation, it’s not his responsibility to do anything about it. Black people have been doing something about it for centuries. Fighting back against white oppression on as many levels as they can. It’s now up to us pink people to begin the process of change within ourselves; to begin to recognise and accept where we might be falling short of the mark.
How many times have I heard someone claim, “I’m not a racist”. A phrase that is almost always followed up with, “but”. Usually uttered by someone who genuinely can’t see the inherent contradiction in that statement.
Even now Joe recognises that there is no malice in the way his managers have attempted to handle the situation. He realises that they are not out and out white supremacists. What they did was crass. Effectively just dismissing it as his problem and dumping it back in his lap.
So Joe now finds himself, having put in a formal grievance, fighting for his job. As he is in his probationary period in the post, they seem to be countering the grievance by questioning his suitability for the role.
From my point of view, I have always taken the position that all of us white folks are racist. It’s just a question of degree. As a child I was introduced to my first black person by an older sibling who had brought him home from college to have dinner with us. I don’t remember batting an eyelid about it. But I do remember the reactions of some of the adults around me. I picked up that they weren’t entirely comfortable around him. I think that somehow that set a seed in me for my own disquiet around some black people. That and a lot of other bits of misinformation picked up later on in life. However I did seem to develop an awareness that this discomfort is not based on anything real; I try to own it and not let it interfere with my own thought processes and behaviour.
I just find it terribly sad that, as white people, we still seem to be stuck in a state of denial about this issue. Maybe it’s a sense of guilt that keeps us from really examining ourselves. But our guilt is of no use at all to someone like Joe. What he needs is for us to recognise and understand his struggle. And then for us to change instead of expecting him to.