The Times I’ve Been Called Nigger:
- Brett invites me over after school to grind his rail, which is of little consequence to me, since I can barely ollie straight; but sometimes I can heelflip, which makes me believe in improvement and wards off the stomach-eating-reality that skateboarding, for me, cannot be sustained, even though I perceive it to be central to my nine-year-old identity, because, unfortunately, I’m real shitty at skateboarding. Brett, like all the other skaters I know, is white. Brett has spiky hair with frosted tips. Brett wears oversized glasses, which make his eyes googly. Brett has a sharp overbite, which will need fixing. Brett listens to metal and makes the devil horns with his hands, which he’s not supposed to do, since his family’s Mormon and he can’t drink soda and can’t celebrate his birthday and I’m asking questions about this while we’re skating around the rail and maybe he doesn’t like my questions, maybe he feels examined, cornered, othered, and suddenly he shouts, Stop being such a nigger. Nigger! Nigger! Nigger! he laughs. The rail sits in a cul-de-sac. The cul-de-sac is south of the boulevard. The cul-de-sac is in Tarzana. Tarzana is named after the beloved Edgar Rice Burroughs character who runs around with apes. Tarzana is whitelandia. There is no one around to help me understand what has just happened. So, I laugh. And we keep skating around the rail till my mom comes and picks me up and I get in the car and she asks me how it was and I say, Fun.
The Times I’ve Been Called Nigga by Non-Negroes:
- Marlon and Justin, call me nigga in greeting, most days. Marlon is Filipino. Justin is Vietnamese. They both dress solely in either Phat Farm or Rocawear. Marlon is the first Filipino I’ve met, beyond myself. We’re on the flag football team together. He says we’re friends. Justin is also my friend because he’s friends with my white friends and if you’re all in a friend group, y’all are, de facto, friends. Justin places socks beneath the tongue of his shoes to lift them up. I’m unclear why this is a style but only the Asian kids in school seem to do it. The state standardized testing tells me that Filipino is categorized under Asian. But I don’t feel Asian. I feel like this half of my body is an island, not a people nor continent. In my yearbook they both write, KIT nigga! plus their phone numbers. Seeing the word in the print doesn’t provide me with any more insight into the deconstruction of the word and its politics—a struggle exacerbated by my lack of prime sources, since my middle school is mad white and because it’s white and thus right and good, it doesn’t bus in too many kids and the kids they bus in are mostly brown and the only black kids in the gifted classes with me are black girls and they don’t use the word, so they are of no help, in this particular moment, in this particular way, in figuring out whether or not, Justin and Marlon can use this word.
- My best friend in high-school is half Chinese, half Filipina. I think I have other best friends, but they’re guys, and guys aren’t supposed to say, You’re my best friend, because that’s gay. She is small and beautiful and a member of the dance team. She is teaching me how to be Pinoy. I go over to her apartment and am met by pork and rosaries. Her mom comes out to shake my hand and then goes back into her bedroom. My best friend is the first person I know who is regularly having sex. She is teaching me about sex. Maybe we have a crush on each other but we’re seeing other people. Then the girlfriend breaks up with me and she leaves her boyfriend, but she’s just had an abortion and we’re only juniors and maybe this isn’t our time. So instead, I sit next to her when she drinks under the moon, on the sidewalk, in the backstreets away from the boulevard. I drive her home. I make her laugh. She tells me I’m too handsome to still be a virgin. She tells me I’m handsome again and how her cousin thinks I’m handsome. Her cousin is older. Her cousin is a dime. Then let me get at her, I half-joke. She probably would be down, my best friend answers, but my prima only fucks with tall niggas.
- A gang of us are going up to Big Bear for the weekend for some snowboarding and lots of drinking. I’m newly eighteen. I’m in community college. The invitation was extended by a girl I’m talking to. She’s Mexican and played on the soccer team with my ex. She recently broke up with her boyfriend. A few weeks earlier, she kissed me drunkingly at an 18+ club that I paid twenty dollars to get into. I wasn’t drunk. We sat outside in a cloud of cigarettes; we were sweating from dancing. She was making fun of my low-cut V neck T-shirt—which momentarily was in style. I asked if she had kissed me cause she was drunk. She said she wasn’t that drunk anymore and kissed me again. A few days later, we drove into Hollywood, got stoned in her car, and went to a laser show set to the music of Zeppelin. Like stoners we were late and missed the show. Too stoned to drive, she asked me if I wouldn’t mind. I drove us to Taco Bell and she kissed me on the cheek and I thought maybe we could be something. The rumor is she has intentions of taking my V card this weekend. That’s what my boy Chris told me with pride in his eyes. We all meet up at someone’s house. I borrow my parent’s Jeep so I can drive some of us up. It’s a mix of people. Chicanos, Asians, Arabs, white girls, and a couple of Israelis, one of whom is also named Matan and we get along real good. As I get out of the car, one of the Arabs swaggers over to me. He’s the brother of a friend. I’ve kicked it with him a few times and he’s always been nice to me with that hyper-masculine aggression sold as playfulness. The brother reaches me and says, What up nigga? And everyone stops and looks over to this challenge, this test of my blackness and perhaps now they can all say it too if I allow this to pass and I look up and there is, not one other, black face in the crowd and I’m just trying to snowboard and dick-down and have a good weekend and I’m not trying to be a problem or sensitive or someone who doesn’t know how to take a joke, so I don’t say anything and we load up the cars, leaving me with my shame all the way to the cabin. Unfortunately, the girl avoids me all weekend. I wonder if it’s because of my lack of self-respect. Apparently, she’s just trying to patch it up with the boyfriend. There aren’t enough beds or couches, since everyone assumed I would be in hers—and since I assumed I would be in hers, I sleep upstairs, on the carpet, underneath a Foosball table.
The Times Non-Negroes Have Said Nigga in Front of Me:
- My white friend Vinnie announces to me that he has black relatives. His mom told him they have family down-south that has intermarried. Vinnie seems excited by this reality. Vinnie’s mom picks us up from school because we’re in seventh grade and I’m going to sleep over and play video games since those are not allowed at my house. She has a regular car that happens to be a convertible. I sit in the back seat with their golden retriever. His name is Blaze because that’s what white people name their dogs. Vinnie confirms with his mom that he has black relatives. She answers in the affirmative, though backtracks, saying, she has never met them. This does nothing to subdue his fire. We drive away. We stop at a red light. There is a black man standing at the bus stop, waiting. Vinnie announces to the car, that since he has black relatives, he can then do this: he lifts up out of his seat, pulling against his belt, and yells, Nigga! His mom yells at him to sit back down though she says nothing of the word. Her voice is shaped like exasperation but still made with affection. Vinnie is laughing and I am not. I catch his mom’s eyes looking at me in the rear-view mirror. She looks away.
- I’m visiting my girlfriend in Long Island, which means I already want the weekend to be over. We’re catching a ride with her friends to a house party I don’t want to go to. The car is packed with white girls and their laughter and Victoria Secret body spray. We climb into the trunk of the 4×4. Sorry about the mess, the driver yells. I introduce myself with a wave, assured I won’t remember who is Becky or Susan or Tammy. Gold Digger by Kanye plays off someone’s phone, which is connected to an aux cord, which is connected to a cassette, since the car is old. It’s not a very good song; it’s a song of the patriarchy; it’s a telling song, of what is to become, the early work, of a house negro. But these white women don’t care and when the chorus hits, this white chorus in the car rises to a crescendo. Broke niggas. Broke niggas. Broke niggas. Emphasis. Elation. I look at my girlfriend. I can feel her shrinking. She is not white. She is a Chicana from East LA, from the hood, with roots reaching back to Jalisco. I’m looking for a little racial solidarity. Cause if I start yelling it’s gonna be a problem and I’m not trying to be an Angry Black Man in a car of white girls I don’t know in Long Island. I’ve seen how this shit plays out and these are her friends and she’s supposed to love me and be down for me but instead she plays it down, lets me down, tells me to let it go—Matan, it’s just a song.
- I’m sitting in the park on my lunch break. I’m eating a salad and pretending to read. A white boy slouches towards me. He looks about my age. He’s wearing sweats, slides, and a hat too big for his head. He’s a caricature of what he thinks a nigga is. He’s the contemporary black face. He’s holding this strange contraption. It looks like a rotary phone, but it’s attached to his smart phone and he’s talking into it. All I hear, as he shuffles past is, “Ay girl you trying to roll up something with a real nigga tonight, or what?” I never found out what the or what was.
- I’m sitting in the kitchen of my college apartment. I live with four white women because I attend a white university. One of them has a black boyfriend and he’s the only other splash of color on this white canvas. None of my roommates are around but two of their friends are over, waiting for them to come back from the bar. The two waiting are also white. They’ve rolled a joint and I agree to smoke it with them. Weeks earlier, I found a boombox on the street and brought it back to the house. It still worked fine. Trash treasure, I think it’s called. One of the girls has plugged in her phone and is playing that well-known joint off Ready to Die. Now if you don’t know, now you know. And I’m only half-stoned because the weed in Boston is wack but I’m staring off at the plates piling up in the sink, doing dishes math, trying to figure out which roommate is most at fault, and one of the girls, the one I don’t know as well, is apologizing profusely, and I’m not picking up what she’s putting down—until I do—and I wish she hadn’t cause now I have to deal with it and I don’t want to because exhaustion is real and so is awkwardness, so I just wave it off because it’s the easiest thing to do and she’ll forget about it and I’ll just write about it later. Plus homegirl is always over and again, I’m not trying to be a problem; I’m not trying to burden any of these white women. But she keeps apologizing and it’s beginning to turn into a situation where I have to be her feelings mamie and support her through this difficult time, till her the other white girl interrupts, the one from Chicago, who talks like a thick-ass black girl but certainly is not, saying, He’s already said forget about it, so forget about it. Jesus, Becky. Now I have to address it since I can’t have some white girl telling some other white girl how I feel about a word that has been used as a measure of my essentialism the entirety of my conscious life and so I take another hit, rallying the words of Angela Davis, who was the reason I decided to attend this fucking university, from which she graduated in ’64, one of the three black students on campus, and now there’s barely four on campus, yet still this university boasts its activist alumni and its deep history of social justice, and these white women bout to learn something today, except the front door opens, my roommates laughing themselves in, high on beer and snow fall, stomping their boots out, and I let go of my breath, with great relief, because now I don’t have to show my anger, my hurt, and instead I get to hide behind my cowardice and pretend it’s all good.