May 21, 2012

Years later, at a junior tennis tournament, I found myself sharing a hotel room with a white youngster from Mobile, Alabama. Late one evening, right as we were about to shut off the lights and go to sleep, this guy decided to tell me a final joke, one in which a reference to a “nigger” constituted the punch line. As soon as that line escaped his lips, his eyes bulged while the rest of his face froze. He knew immediately that he had made himself vulnerable to a judgment that he deeply feared. Why had he done so? I suspect that he had become so comfortable with me that he ceased, at least temporarily, to see me in terms of race. Or perhaps he had merely granted me the status of an honorary white. Either way, the reference to “nigger” seems to have suddenly made him aware anew of my blackness and thus the need to treat me differently than other acquaintances. I said nothing during the awkward silence that enveloped the room as his voice trailed away from the failed joke.

He apologized.

I do not recall whether or not I actually felt offended, but I do remember that from that moment on, the ease that has marked our budding friendship vanished.


Randall Kennedy, Nigger: the Strange Career of a Troublesome Word

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