Words mean things...

Words mean things...Buckwheat is a racial slur | Yes, We Rise

How a racial slur changed my perspective

Sticks and stones may break my bones
But words will never hurt me...

I grew up sing-songing those words all the time. I don't remember who taught them to me but my guess is that they were to serve as a way for me to feel protected from people who tried to hurt me with words. I'll be honest, it rarely worked. Well,  it worked enough to keep whomever from knowing that they had gotten under my skin... but it didn't really stop the pain that the words inflicted on my spirit. I was a very sensitive child. I grew into a sensitive and sometimes empathetic adult.

...but words will never hurt me. 

I've said those words so many times on so many occasions with the same results. Just enough strength and courage to get through whatever horrible moment I was in. Of course as I grew up and matured, reciting nursery rhymes wasn't a useful skill. I stopped singing to myself and to others. I believed I was strong enough to endure whatever was slung my way.

Growing up just outside of Washington, DC I was accustomed to seeing diverse people around me. My neighborhood was mixed, though primarily black. I went to school that was predominately black students but there were quite a few white students as well as teachers. My world was mixed but I was part of the majority that I saw. I knew about racism but I can't say that I ever experienced it growing up.

My parents are both from much farther south and because they were teens and young adults throughout the civil rights era, I grew up discussing race and politics at home. I knew that where they grew up, it wasn't unusual for someone to hurl a racial slur at a black person. I also knew that the proper response to the slur was to ignore it and continue on your way. No backtalk. No sass mouth. We'd come a long way, but there were real repercussions for being too smart-mouthed. Besides, the proof was in the showing. The best way to teach someone that you weren't a n*gger was not to behave like one. So I never did.

...but words will never hurt me.

I got to college just as the apartheid movement was reaching epic proportions around the globe. Protesting South African apartheid was as close to a civil rights protest as I would get and I, like most of my peers, was excited to share my energy and passion for the movement. In the 80's, even our music was political and radical at times. Public Enemy, KRS-One and many others, used their musical platforms to educate us about systemic racism in the US and in SA. I knew that racism was wrong. I thought I understood what it meant for someone to see you as less than; to deny you opportunities just because of the color of your skin.

And then one day someone called me a racial slur on my job.

...but words... 

Now, by the time this incident happened... I had a major interest in learning all that I could about African-American history, slavery, Jim Crow, racism... all of it. I still have this same interest. I've read so many books and watched many films that relate to the black experience in America. I do it purely because I find it all fascinating and I always want to know more. When I got to college I realized that what I had been taught in high school was pretty much nothing. And even with the personal stories and anecdotes that my parents and grandparents shared with me, I had barely scratched the surface of understanding just how crazy and twisted our American culture was when it came to race.

I studied political science in college primarily because I felt that the best way to dismantle the racist system was to understand it and work from within to make changes. Politics fascinated me because I was patriotic enough to find inspiration and motivation from the words of the Founding Fathers... yet I was becoming rebellious enough to see how wrong the nation had done us for so long and I wanted to see change. I struggled to find a way to keep both mindsets going at the same time.

How do you love a country because of its ideals when you see and hear the ways that it regularly and purposefully denies so many citizens of their right to achieve those ideals? I still don't have an answer to that.

So, there I was... one sunny day in 1997. It was late in the year and I felt good about myself. I had a job that I loved in my field, working with people who seemed absolutely great. The office was a mixing bowl of diversity and that made me feel good. I had two wonderful managers and I was learning so much. I felt like I was on my way.

Over one weekend, I had gotten extremely frustrated with my hairdresser and marched into the barbershop that was on the corner by my apartment building. I sat in the first available chair and asked the barber to cut it all off. In hindsight, it probably wasn't the most well thought out plan but I was tired of the hassle of going to the salon. I walked into my office that Monday feeling cute. I liked my short natural hair. It framed my face well and I felt really pretty.

I wore a bright orange shirt that day with a coordinating scarf around my neck. A shirt that I'd worn many times before, with the same scarf. I liked the color on my skin. While sitting at my desk chatting with a few co-workers, one of the senior vice presidents of the company walked by. A nice older white lady, she had (I thought) taken a liking to me. She had offered me advice on different occasions; advice on things like where I should move (so that I could be taken more seriously), how to wear my nails, when to speak up in meetings, etc. Little things that I took to heart because I felt that they came from a good place. As she joined in the conversation with us that day, she kept looking at me with a strange squint.

"You remind me of someone today Nicole... but I can't put my finger on it."

I smiled. I thought that perhaps I reminded her of a friend. Suddenly she perked up... "I got it! Buckwheat! You remind me of Buckwheat."

...but words... 

All of the chatter in the hallway ceased for a moment. No one said a word. She repeated it. Several times. She smiled, she laughed slightly. Yes... I reminded her of Buckwheat. I heard the chuckles... I could only blink.

Words mean things...Buckwheat is a racial slur | Yes, We Rise

The only thing different about me that day from every other day that I worked in that office was that I cut my hair and was no longer wearing it in a straightened, relaxed style.

I couldn't speak. I couldn't move for a few moments. It became an out of body experience. This was Kathy. My friend; I thought. I could hear laughter but it was like I was under water for awhile. I could hear things but it was all muffled; I could see people but they seemed blurry. I was hurt. I was deeply hurt.

One of my managers came out of his office when he heard the laughter and wanted to know what was going on. I mumbled that Kathy had just said that I looked like Buckwheat and I looked at my hands. I couldn't look him in the eye. I couldn't look at anyone. I was barely holding back the tears.

...but words... 

The rest of the day was a blur honestly. All I kept hearing in my head was "you look like Buckwheat" and the laughter of all of my peers. I was sick to my stomach the rest of the day. When I got home and called my mother to tell her what happened (and to ask her what to do, since she worked in HR at her job)...she was so matter-of-fact in her response.

"So no one's ever called you a n*gger to your face before?"

I just burst into tears.

No. No one had ever called me anything like that before. I never even considered it as a possibility. I mean, I'm a cute girl. I'm nice. I'm well spoken. I'm smart. I'm educated. Nothing about me says Buckwheat. Nothing in my spirit identified with being called a n*gger. That wasn't who I was. I was stuck that someone who I had trusted until that moment had revealed to me that to her, I was a little pickaninny. A caricature of blackness.

I think my mother's advice was for me to ignore it. To accept that some white people would always look at me and see that even though most would never tell me. I had to remember the pain of that moment so that I was never caught off guard that way again. I chose to go a step further. I wanted to try to regain some of my professionalism that I felt was eroded in the moment. I wrote a memo to HR and explained what happened and why I was offended at the slur. I asked for diversity training for the entire office. My rationale was that if a "slip of the tongue" like that happened with one of the company's clients, it would be a problem. (It had not hit me yet that it would have never happened because she saw ME as a pickaninny not the other black executives that worked for the businesses that we served) And finally, I asked that a notation was put in her file about the incident.

You know what happened?

I was chastised for being overly sensitive. I was told that there was no way that Kathy could have meant what she said as an insult or a racial slur. And I was forced to apologize to Kathy for even complaining about the incident.

...but words... 

I sat in Kathy's office that day with giant crocodile tears in my eyes. I was humiliated. I was heart broken. I was confused. I also realized that Kathy wasn't the only one in that office who looked at me and saw a caricature. I quit a few weeks later.

Now, my story of being called out of my name isn't as horrible as some other people's. But its mine. And I'm sharing it because a high school basketball coach in Texas recently called one of his female players Buckwheat.

See: Basketball coach calls black player ‘Buckwheat,’ says he was unaware of ‘racial context’

Words mean things...Buckwheat is a racial slur | Yes, We Rise

The coach says that he was unaware of the racial context of calling someone black Buckwheat. It reminded me so clearly of the day that I was talking to HR and then talking to Kathy about her calling me a racial slur... while she explained to me that Buckwheat was an endearing character from her childhood.

Lemme go on now (20 years later) and call bullshyt on that. The Little Rascals aired in the 1930's and 1940's. Even in 1997 when this incident occurred, Buckwheat had been a source of controversy because Eddie Murphy had become quite popular with a recurring skit on Saturday Night Live of the character. And... even if Buckwheat was endearing to her, Buckwheat was a boy. There is nothing about me that should give anyone any idea that I am a boy or boy-like. So... side eye on that. 

Nearly 20 years later I still feel shame about that incident. I wonder if I did the right thing in my reaction. I wonder if I should have just ignored it. I often regret quitting that job. Outside of that incident, it was a great position for me. But in my heart, I couldn't stay where my complaints about someone's language towards me were so easily dismissed. As I stated earlier, I am a very sensitive person. Sometimes that's not a good thing. In this case... I dunno. Perhaps I should have taken my mother's advice and ignored it.

...but words...will never hurt me.

I've never worn my hair in a relaxed style again. I've been natural for almost 20 years now. I didn't do it as some sort of political statement then.  I don't continue doing it now for any political statement either. I wear my hair this way because this is the way that it grows out of my scalp. I should be allowed to be me and still be considered just as talented, just as gifted and just as professional as I would be if I chose to wear it straight and flowing.

Kathy's words hurt me. Deeply. I've never really gotten over the fact that I misjudged someone at work so drastically. I've also never really trusted anyone I worked with again. I don't think that all people look at me and think of that character. I am, however, always cognizant that some folks refuse to move forward in their thinking and their language. But that can't be the excuse for hurting someone with racial slurs anymore. If ignorance of the law doesn't excuse you from being charged with a crime... then ignorance of the pain behind racially insensitive language shouldn't excuse you either. Everyone isn't as sensitive as I am. However, when in doubt... just don't say it. Name calling isn't useful and racial slurs are never acceptable.

Buckwheat is a slur when directed at a black person. It is not acceptable. Period. I hope and pray that the student who was shamed by her coach finds support to help her get beyond this moment.

To learn more about Buckwheat and pickaninnies read:

  The picaninny caricature | Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia

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