They Called Me a N****r. What Do I Do Now?
I just watched a video that will likely be on my mind for the rest of the day. The violence in it makes my stomach churn and so does the certainty that certain White people will use it to absolve themselves of their own racism because of a Black antagonist who gave as good as he got, only much worse.
In the clip documenting a March 29 encounter on a New York City subway, a Black man pummels an Asian man until he’s unconscious, allegedly for calling him the N word. As I watched the Black man repeatedly punching the Asian man and then putting him in a chokehold, a few thoughts ran through my head.
1. Racial prejudice is a pandemic that also infects people from minority groups who should be supporting each other.
2. This bashing will clearly be viewed by many through the lens of recent anti-Asian violence, but it might just be a random showdown with terrible timing. The beating would be equally despicable if the guy who allegedly said the N word was White.
3. Wait. Why isn’t anyone even attempting to break it up? Are they afraid of making body contact for pandemic reasons? Or have we become a society of camera-wielding voyeurs who are more concerned with documenting violent encounters than stopping them?
Some commenters on a Twitter thread where the video was posted suggested the Asian man might not have said the N word at all but a Korean word that sounds similar to it. I have no idea if the bashing victim is actually Korean, but apparently, the words nega and niga, which are both forms of “you” in Korean, and naega, which means “I,” cause some confusion among English-speaking K-pop fans who sometimes mishear them not as personal pronouns but something far more sinister. If he was indeed communicating in a different language, then it’s an even more tragic incident that speaks to another problem: hurt people who hurt people by acting before thinking — and listening.
When I lived in Buenos Aires, I remember having a conversation with the roommate of a friend who spoke very little English. She once told me about a trip to New York, where she almost had a similar encounter after using the word negro (which is Spanish for “black”) to someone who misunderstood and heard the N word.
Thankfully, a bystander who wasn’t preoccupied with filming the encounter intervened on behalf of my friend’s roommate. I don’t even want to think about what might have happened otherwise. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” is a comeback we are taught as kids, but I’ve always known that was a load of BS. Words hurt. They sting, and they stick with you. The secret isn’t to pretend they don’t, but to learn how to deal with them when they do.
Last year, Reader’s Digest asked me to write a story about How to Respond When Someone Makes a Racist Comment, and here is the advice I offered for reacting to being called the N word or any other racist epithet.
If you are Black, you’ve probably had the N-word directed at you. No matter how many times it happens, it always comes as a shock. And the question is always the same: Do I fight or take flight? Unless it’s in self-defense, under no circumstances should you fight. If you are in a work situation, tell a superior immediately, and bring any witnesses along with you. Off the clock, in the absence of witnesses or video evidence to post on social media, the best response is no response, although a chuckle and “Is that the best you’ve got?” can be effective, too.
I know that’s easier said than done. I’ve been called the N word too many times to count in my life, but I’ve never thrown a punch because of it. I say this as a Black man who is particularly sensitive to it. I still flinch when rappers use the N word, which is one of the reasons why I don’t listen to a lot of rap. Just reading about how a Capitol Records executive used it to describe Tina Turner 40 years ago in another story that’s trending this week makes me shudder.
Sadly, we live in a world where the N word is inescapable, even for a now-Swiss-based superstar like Tina Turner. I know I’ll hear it again, and it might very well be directed at me. That, I cannot control. I do, however, have a say in what will happen next. Even if we weren’t living in times when body contact between strangers on subways is risky, brawling wouldn’t be an option.
The N word might sting the next time someone hurls it at me. It might hurt. Hell, I know it will. It’ll probably play on repeat in my head for hours or days. But if I let whoever says it see me sweat, even if it’s while assaulting them, they’ve won. And for me, that would do more damage than the N word alone could ever do.