What Would White People Say?

Sometime last week I let my mind wander from the needs of the day and asked myself

“Self? What do White people say in their private moments when none of the Us’s is around?”

“I dunno,” said Self. “Maybe we should ask ’em.”

I contemplated sending out an email to my white friends and colleagues to ask them what kind of language they use when minorities are not around.

Be honest, the email was going to say. Do you call blacks “nigger”, Hispanics “wetbacks”, and Asians “chinks”?

I’m no hypocrite. I can confess here and now that I myself have called White people whitey, cracker, cracker-ass-cracker and so forth. I’ve called certain Black folk niggers. I just wanted to know if the White people in my life could be honest and tell me what really goes on in their private thoughts and conversations when it’s safe for them. Before I could type of the email, John Mayer answered the question for me in a Playboy interview. Turns out John is pretty comfortable with the word “nigger”. I’d like to thank John Mayer for saving me a lot of research time and trouble. I’m going to infer that other White guys his age are comfortable with the word too.

As a Black woman, I can’t even be mad at John Mayer. Was he not a guest on Chappelle Show on which Paul Mooney wildly proclaimed “Nigger, Nigger, Nigger—it keeps my teeth clean” ? If all the Black people around you are comfortable cleaning their teeth with the word ‘nigger’, why should you as a White guy feel some ways about it?

‘Racist’ labels don’t bother me very much. I know that the measure of a human being, regardless of color, is in the merit of their actions. What offends me more is the hypocrisy surrounding ‘racist’ utterances. Mayer came out later and apologized for using the offending word during a concert. I for one do not accept his apology. It’s not needed – Because until every other ball player, rapper, record exec and black man in a barber shop or on a corner apologizes for blurting out the word, or using it as a greeting. or looses comfort with it’s presence in their vocabulary, I don’t believe any crackers should be sorry for using it either.

  • Neither I nor any of my white friends use the terms you’ve listed. But there is a huge stigma against those terms, at least all across Canada. Even if we say ‘black’ versus ‘African-American’, people look at us in disgust. I would never say ‘nigger’, ever. The only people I hear saying it are my friends who are black. The only racial discrimination of that type here is against Aboriginals, who are sometimes called Indians, although this is happening less and less and people become aware that it is bad.

    So, at least in Canada, you will almost never hear nigger, chink, etc., come out of a white person’s mouth. And if it does come out, you can guarantee that someone else will call them out on it and tell them they’re an idiot.

    • Thanks for the clarification westwood. I live in the South, and I think attitudes down here are vastly different from those in Canada, however. I believe Canadians are probably more racially tolerant than people who live in America as a whole, regardless of race. I still contend that there are probably a good number of white folk (in America) who utter the “n-word” at home in not-so-polite conversation, but of course I can’t have proof of this until someone fesses up!

      • I’ve never been to the South so I don’t really know, but from what I’ve heard, that sounds about right.

        It’s pretty sick, actually. People need to get their acts together.

  • David S.

    What irks me about the tendency to focus on racist labels is that it gives apologists for institutional racism the opening to argue that racism is dead in America because the word nigger has been removed from the dictionary. I’ve always seen racists labels as the smallest part of a bigger problem and it annoys me to hear so-called civil rights activists treat labelling as if it it THE problem.

  • For me, a white woman, I do not use those words in private or in my head. But it is a really fascinating question. And certainly one’s background may affect this. I grew up in white suburbs in the Northeast, attending mainly Catholic schools. I don’t think I heard the word nigger until I was high school.

  • Andrea

    OK, I’ll bite. I live in a state that is 93 percent white and I have never heard anyone use the N word in whites only conversation or in public. It would be considered bad manners and decidedly lower class to use that term. Most middle class white people I know would frown at that person and politely change the subject, much as they would if someone made a crude comment about American Indians or even noticed race, for that matter. In polite white society, at least here, race is not mentioned and we don’t call people names. Period. That doesn’t mean there isn’t racism or attitudes, mainly about American Indians, that would probably make you want to scream. It just usually doesn’t come with name calling. People might be ignorant or paternalistic or sound like your average caller to the Rush Limbaugh radio show. The Indian girls did occasionally call us “honkies,” which annoyed me more than anything else. I grew up near a reservation with the typical social problems related to poverty and racism and centuries of oppression (high unemployment, high teenage pregnancy rate, high rates of alcoholism and drug use, etc.) There was a fair amount of racism but even there I don’t remember a lot of overt namecalling by whites against the Indians or vice versa.

  • In my experience here in California, white people don’t talk about race AT ALL. It is a taboo subject, and people won’t even bring it up. I’ve never heard someone use a racial slur in real life, except for an 80something relative when I was very small. But living here also makes for chirping cricket sounds whenever I try to engage someone in a real conversation about race, and it also means that people are in denial that racism exists.

  • dersk

    Grew up south of the Mason Dixon line, went to uni in New York State then lived in Boston five years (then moved to Amsterdam 15 years ago).

    Never used racial epithets that I knew were epithets (evidently, Oriental is now offensive). Never heard anyone use the word nigger, though I do vaguely recall (like, elementary school in the mid-70s) that the game where you ring someone’s doorbell and run was called nigger knocking. I remember being horrified when my dad talking about jewing someone’s price down. I think that was high school, and it’s the only time I heard him use a word like that.

    My guess is that the word’s mostly used by white kids who’ve had it deracinated through hip hop.

  • Thank you White people, for answering this question! So, now I’m compelled to ask: Are all the articles I read in Essence and other Black mags where black people passing for white are privy to the sometimes unflattering comments directed at blacks, including racial epithets? Do you guys think your experience is the norm or the exception?

    I’m truly fascinated and confused, because I’ll tell you, Black people of a certain age assume MOST Caucasians think poorly of them and would have no qualms with name calling. Is this a skewed perception?

  • dersk

    Honestly, I think the experiences here are more the norm, although of course people who come to this blog are going to be a self-selecting audience. The cynical side of me recognizes that it’s also probably a lot easier to sell an article demonstrating shocking racism among us white folks to Essence…

  • @dersk – Well yeah! Who wants to read an article about how nice white folks are? I’m kidding, I’m kidding. 🙂 Y’all did give us Barack Obama. Thanks, White people.

  • E

    Okay, I’m from the South. I’ve never, ever heard any of my family members use that word – not my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. I’ve never used it. I’ve never heard my friends use it. I did hear it in high school a few times, from people I would never associate with. And years ago I worked with someone who was in all likelihood a member of the KKK & he said it in front of me ONCE – and found out quickly that he’d better not ever say it around me again. I know some people that probably do use that word. But they are not people we socialize with. I don’t think we are that unusual. I grew up in a small Southern town; my grandparents were small farmers, and poor. They didn’t face the same kind of discrimination that African-Americans did, but I saw for myself how some people looked at my grandfather, with his overalls, dirty fingernails and battered old truck. That made a big impression on me.

    And I get so tired and frustrated that people from other parts of the country – or other countries – assume that I’m racist because I’m Southern. I think there are more people like me than there are those obnoxious, loud bigots. But the bigots are loud, and the media loves to put them on tv.

  • Andrea

    I’m sure there are some white people who make those derogatory comments and pretty often. I just don’t hear namecalling from the people I know and work with. People do use “code words” occasionally to talk about race. If it comes up, it might be that so and so is playing the race card or those people should stop complaining or relying on the government for assistance or such and such. “Those people” is more likely to be the Indians here than it is blacks because there aren’t a lot of blacks. I was brought up not to point out race and not to talk about it in public. The “n” word is crude as well as racist and hurtful. I’d expect to hear it from poor, uneducated, ignorant white people from a very bad background, the sort of creeps who beat their wives or kick their dogs or have the police at their house every week. I wouldn’t want to associate with them. And that’s all about class and probably has its own baggage. I’d be utterly shocked to hear a middle class, educated white person use that term but that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t have some attitudes that some would call racist.

  • bob

    I am white and have been poor all of my life. I grew up in the “hood” in our city. I was grateful to move into the “hood” because we were homeless. Today, I am still poor even though I have graduated from college a few times with good grades. Now I have a bunch of debt and nothing to show for it except stress. Please don’t call me “white trailer trash” because I cannot afford a trailer, lot rent, utilities and all the other expenses that come along with home ownership.

    Black are not the only ones with problems and being desciminated against. If you have been poor and homeless, it is difficult to get out of it because not only do you lack the proper connections but the education you really need is not taught in any school system.

    Some black folks like to keep stirring the ‘ol hate pot, but you really need to role down the window when you fart in the car because poor white folk may be in the back seat. Sometimes the defeatist attitude and hatred causes problems for everybody. It makes the world an awful place to live.

    I sometimes use the word nigger but it is when I am upset with young black thugs. I have no issues with other races or anybody else. The only people that have ever caused me problems and been violent towards me have been young blacks. My question though is where are all the young black thugs learning this behavior, is it from the older generation of blacks, the media, where?

    I carry a gun now because I can’t go outside and stretch my legs without blacks acting stupid and racist towards me. You all need to stop preaching hate and change whatever is going on. I don’t know, maybe older black folks need to shield younger black folks from whatever it is that they are being taught? Throw away the television and radio maybe? I promise to stop using the word nigger when you stop the hate towards me and stop using the word yourself.

    • Thanks for proving my point, Bob.

  • Wow. Bob really did just that, didn’t he?

    WOW.

    • Yes, Kristen. Yes he did. But I honestly appreciate his honesty, odd as his views may seem.

  • Stella

    here are my $0.02. i attended a very preppy liberal arts college in NE and some of the litterati there called the black students on campus niggers. That was where I had the honor of being told “you are very pretty for an African”. God bless! During my doctoral program there were attitudes and behaviors that could only be racist. i also met Black folks who consistently played the race card to have their way, seek promotions, etc. without doing anything to merit it. So yea, I do not know that education has a whole lot to do with it.

    That said, while we are on the subject let’s see what Black folks think of Whites behind closed doors 😉