Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Dropping the N-Word at the Dinner Table

The whole family went to church together a few months back, which usually never happens unless poinsettas or palm fronds decorate the place. But my grandma was retiring from 6 decades of tireless, passionate floral artistry for her church, so we broke policy and went.

A white man sat in front of us, holding the smallest, cutest baby on earth. My own baby will not be as cute as this one was -- no way. Its eyes were barely open and its hands were like little clay models of fists. While the couple in front of us cuddled and loved this baby like only parents can, the baby was obviously not their biological child: the baby was black.

My sister and I made faces and waved at the kid all through the service, elbowing each other and pointing when it did something particularly adorable. Then we all filed out into the fellowship hall for my grandmother's retirement ceremony and proceeded to get intoxicated on sheet cake from Kroger and little tiny ham sandwiches.

The family gathered back at my grandparents' place -- my parents, sister, grandparents, aunt and uncle. We were going good there for a little bit, talking about the various mentally unhinged people my grandmother has befriended over the years, and then conversation waned.

After a silence, my grandpa piped up.
Anybody see that man with the little nigger baby in church today?

This did not exactly stimulate conversation. In a fraction of a second, we communicated telepathically and agreed to stare at the exact same fiber on the carpet.

After a long, deathless silence, my uncle spoke up:
I know you can do better than that, Dad.

He replied
What? Ah, come on, you all know what ...
and sorta trailed off, looking around the room for some kind of recognition or affirmation that he was fine and the rest of the world was all crazy uptight.

Pop-Pop, I think we should try another one,
I said. I wasn't going to embarrass him or myself by trying to explain it, but I couldn't let it pass, no matter how much I still loved him.

He tried again:

Okay. Jeesh, people. Did any of you see the man with the little colored baby in church today?

Technically, it was an improvement on his first attempt. An improvement, yes, without being at all a good alternative.

He was using what he knew to be the best, most respectful word he could think of when the pressure was on. And I know my grandpa's heart, and he's not the kind of person whose actions align with the philosophy that language implies. Somewhere between the early fifties and the early eighties the whole world changed while he was welding for NASA, and the news didn't make it to him. You can't blame him.

I'm not telling this story to make fun of my granddad. Not by a long shot, man. Sure, it's hilarious, but everyone's got a family member just lighting it up at the worst possible time -- regardless of race or culture. If you don't have that kind of story in your closet somewhere, you're probably the repeat offender in the family.

Our grandparents say stuff like this all the time because it's normal for the world to change fast while we're just trying to mind our business and make it to work on time. We're the product of an enlightened information age, supposedly, but at some point we're going to stop keeping up and not notice.

Now my sister and I are the ones laughing, but in thirty years' time we're going to be the ones telling the joke to embarrassed silence at the dinner table. What kills me is that I have NO idea what it's going to be. It fascinates me, knowing that some part of my everyday reality is going to offend and infuriate future generations, my own future flesh and blood.

I can't wait.


At 9:53 AM, Blogger Reya Mellicker said...

Maybe ageism will become unpopular. As I get older, I notice all the time how ageist our society is. For instance Home Improvement Ninja, a GREAT blogger whom I admire tremendously, wrote about how his flooded basement "smells like old people." He would never dream of saying it smelled like gay people, black people, or Jews (for instance).

Great post, and a most honest yet respectful response from your family to your grandfather. I salute you!

At 10:55 AM, Anonymous Sweet said...

Ah yeah, my grandfather said something similar at the dinner table once. It's amazing to look at the way different generations view things. And I agree with you, I wonder what my mess up will be when I'm older?

At 12:00 PM, Blogger Lonnie Bruner said...

Damn, my grand dad was somewhat racist too, but never heard him drop an N bomb!

At 12:03 PM, Blogger Jeff Simmermon said...

Well, the point I meant to make -- and maybe missed -- was that there's a big difference between someone's words and the contents of their soul. He's a good, kind, fair man with an outdated vocabulary, is all I am saying.

At 1:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My dad grew up in Detroit in the 1950's and uses the term "Chinaman" unironically. I guess it's kind of offensive, especially because he could be referring to any person of Asian descent, and thus implies you can't tell them apart and they must all be Chinamen, but he means no offense and I actually get a little kick out of it. If he were actually racist I would cringe when he said it.

At 3:07 PM, Blogger Lonnie Bruner said...

"there's a big difference between someone's words and the contents of their soul" -- I totally agree. I hear ya.


At 3:26 PM, Blogger E :) said...

My Grandpa never gave up calling the Japanese "Japs" after he fought them in WWII. Funnily enough he referred to the "black American men" as being "the best soldiers of the lot" because compared to them the white soldiers (whether they be Aussies or Americans) looked like "pimply backed teenagers"!!!!

My grandmother on the other hand is really mean. She was horrified when my cousin married "a Catholic!" and again when my other cousin married "that Greek girl." The difference between that and your grandpa is she knows she's being offensive. Some older people are still intentionally racist, though many are not!

At 7:27 PM, Blogger Xiao-Tin said...

Hey there,

This isn't political?? "there's a big difference between someone's words and the contents of their soul." I don't know if anything I say may not come out as non-patronizing to you but that's really beautiful. I feel that way all of the time here in my "hey, why does everyone have plastic surgery" judgements all day long in Brazil. You're so right. People are just people and just because they are socialized to do or say something doesn't mean they're evil.

Look, I'm sorry that I made it seem like bloggers were all just sit-at-home losers trying to get their story heard. That was pretty fucked up of me and definitely not what I was trying to say. Especially since blogging is extremely grassroots and demonstrates that the whole concept of what is perceived as "good writing" is subjective because blogging demonstrates that the whole world is full of amazing material. What I meant for Sober in the City is that by limiting herself to blogging, there's a world full of women who are not bloggers, who do not have access to the blog community, (or computers for that matter) or who may not be interested in blogging at all, who are not hearing her story but should because as a woman, I think she could make an impact.

That's all. Anyway, I really liked your "Dropping the N-Word at the Dinner Table" piece Jeff.

At 11:51 AM, Anonymous trish said...

i can totally relate.

and i absolutely adore the way you write, jeff.

At 5:04 PM, Blogger Barbara said...

I grew up with people in the South who knew no other words for people of color. Even those people referred to themselves unashamedly with the "n" word. It's just a generational thing. Your grandfather probably meant no disrespect -- he was simply at a loss for words. You are so right -- we will all get our turn sooner than we think...

At 2:16 PM, Blogger dctwentysomething said...

this article is great. it is a representation of family life where all sorts of mishaps occur. lol - who better to cover than family ...

At 1:56 AM, Blogger Cheetarah1980 said...

You know if you can get grandpa to transition from using "colored" to "Negro," I'd say that's a pretty big achievement.

At 9:45 AM, Anonymous saywhat said...

I'm 25yrs old. And though I may
not say it, when I see it, I think
the same thing. Only worst.
I'm sorry, I just think it's so gross!


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