I Accidentally Called a Friend “Nigger” & Other Scenes in Belonging

Haha, I click baited you! I lied.

I didn’t call my friend a nigger.

I called her a coconut, which is basically the same thing.

I’ll backtrack.

I went to Spelman College, an all-female, all-Black, college in the South. I am from Oakland, and in particular the Oakland of the 80’s & 90’s, the Oakland of peak national diversity, Oakland mid to post-(pandemic) crack & pre-gentrification. For all the glorious mix of cultures I come from, it too had its limitations. There is a decidedly different mix here than in the East, North, or South, and although most Black-Americans in the West come from the South, particularly Texas & Louisiana, there are far more Black people from the Caribbean as you move East, which I did after graduation.

After college I moved to Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York, importantly pre-gentrification Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York, with one of my good friends from school and we took over the apartment she’d grown up in.

It was a total culture shock. The narrow, neo-liberal lens of “diversity” often obscures, quite ironically, the whole deal about diversity: we’re not all the same. As above, so below: not all Black people are the same.

I knew this already but at Spelman I had been more like a bell-pepper, or a cherry tomato, in a cobb salad; part of a plethora. In Crown Heights I was an adorning anchovy to a Caesar, clearly just adding my own flavor to an already stable palate.

The African diaspora is a vast swath of both geography & culture. Depending on your chosen timeline of humanity All of humanity is the African diaspora. That’s not really helpful when looking at something as socio-political as a racial slur though; it Matters that people who carry the physical and cultural traits of African tradition as it has survived through the generations experience an oppression on this planet that those who don’t do not. And when I say African what I mean most at heart is Indigenous, but that’s another thought piece.

Upwards of 95% of my neighbors were West Indian, including my roommate. Most had emigrated themselves or were 1st generation Americans. And it was clear that I didn’t “belong”.

I am walking home from the subway station after a day at my internship in the Upper West Side. I’m in my boho business casual wear- ironic t-shirt, a skirt with 30’s hemlines, flip-flips, and a backpack. The brick buildings with grated windows that line the sidewalk are removed, all of them, from the sidewalk by a short flight of stairs, a squarish lawn, and another short flight of stairs before their gated & buzzered doors.

What differentiates them most are their relative heights. Some are shorter, and feel more like homes. Other are more true to their functions: boxes of human beings stacked upon one another like so many forgotten tools in a garage. The systemic neglect is written across the walls and the faces of the people that line them in the middle of the day looking for something other than a wall to see.

I am stopped by a neighbor a few buildings down. They wait in front of the wall to their building, a shorter, homier one, in a white t-shirt, blue jeans and a doo-rag. As I come down the block towards their building I see them move towards the flight of stairs closest to the street.

I have become accustomed to this as I move through the neighborhood. The curiosity. It doesn’t bother me here, though it does make me curious in return. I understand their curiosity, their wariness, and only wonder, what does the sight of me mean to them?

The neighbor, a middle-aged man, stops at the steps.

‘Scuse me. Hey!

I have on earphones, which I always do when I am walking in the city. I don’t always have them turned on and today I hear them through the buds, though I initially pretend not to. But they are insistent, and at 22 they are my elder so I slow and pull the buds out of my ears.

I seen you walking here, a new face; you live a few buildings down, right?

I say yes, and vaguely gesture in the direction of my building not wanting to reveal too much and already feeling so very conspicuous, exposed.

Most of us have lived here for years, some always, so we know who’s who and so I knew I didn’t know you. I just wanted to let you know that I’ve got an eye out in case anything happens. I’m always looking to see who’s around.

As we talk he is indeed looking around, not in alarm, but a gentle, known, surveillance of his environment.

I feel it as a message with double-meanings: I am both protected, and accountable. If something happens to me it’d get checked out; if I was that something I’d get checked accordingly.

I wonder what role they play in the flow of life. Who they might tell about what they see, and why. I thank him and promise to let them know if anything unruly happens in the community that they should know about. Nothing ever does. Well, there was The Cat-Rapist, but that’s another thought piece.

Black Mike, a friend who lives in the next building, tells me while we smoke a blunt in my then somewhat circa apocalypse living room- futon, a tv, on a nightstand, literally nothing else-,

You stand out here you know.

I knew.

Really, how?

– For one thing, you wear flip-flops, and like Keep wearing flip-flops, waay past summertime.

It was true (it’s still true).

Okay, okay, but I’m from the Bay, where I’m from Fall is the warmest part of the year!

– Whateva Jihan. It’s not just that, I see you on your way to work sometimes, you leave about the same time I get my sister up for school, and I see you sometimes out the window, and you come out the building with your backpack- and your fucking flip-flops- on, (he mimes my morning strap adjustment on the stoop) and nobody from here walks like that.

His caricature of me is spot-on.

Ha, ha. Like what?

– Like they’re about to go on an adventure.

Well, I am!

To prove my point I quote Bilbo Baggins, “Stepping out of your door is a dangerous business, you never know where your feet may take you,” which only proved his, as his amused side-eye let me know.

– What? the fuck Jihan. (laughing) Yea, exactly.

We both crack up, me from the familiar knowingness of how being a nerd interrupts my belonging most places, and how being Black interrupts my belonging as a nerd, and he because now he realizes: it’s not a joke, and that’s why it’s so funny, I am an adventurer, because I don’t belong, there, or anywhere, really. As a Black, female-bodied, neurologically atypical, nerd I am always between.

I started to wonder how else I might stand out. I’d already experienced 3 distinct socio-cultural environments (mixed race, mixed class childhood; mostly White, less mixed-class adolescence; all Black, mostly female young adulthood) and traveled to places where I wasn’t “normal” so I had no expectations of belonging, per se (I usually get a reaction like that quoting Tolkein anywhere/everywhere), but I did expect to at least blend in.

There were other little incidents and I started to feel more and more awareness of living on a certain surface of my neighborhood. There were rules, codes of behavior, norms of address, that weren’t mine. And that was ok. I’m an Oaklander through & through (hella), but I didn’t want to eschew these cultural expectations either. I acknowledged my place as an outsider and sought to understand rather than become.

I spent time with my roommate & her friends and the more I did the more I started to understand. How to make proper curry, where to get the good roti and how to order it. I started to get comfortable.

And then it happened.

One day in our kitchen while a friend of hers from around the corner was over, it happened. She said something funny, and then I laughed, and said,

You crazy coconut.

That was the wrong thing to say. Well, it was the wrong thing for me to say.

Both of them froze along with the laughter in the air. They looked at each other, and then at me.

You can’t say that.

I feel mortified, and confused, and embarrassed, and a little hot from image protecting defensiveness.

Oh, my bad. Is that a bad word? I know I don’t know how to use it. I said it because I’d heard you say it to each other, and because I like coconuts. [And because I want to belong too!]

They relax a little and tell me it’s slang in the West Indies, but is like using nigger for them, a laughter only appropriate for those hurt by it.

Oh. It’s too bad they fucked up something as wonderful as coconuts like that.

That’s actually the end of the story. Nothing else happened. And that is the point of this story, of all of these stories.

My desire, need, to belong didn’t trump anything about my impact.

They didn’t need to know anything more about my intentions than that my impact was from ignorance & I didn’t need to know anything more than that it hurt them to never say it again.

Yup.

The end.

 

 

Published by

moonwise

Jihan McDonald is a facilitator, counselor, writer and educator from Oakland, CA. Currently completing a Masters in Social Transformation, Jihan derives deep pleasure from the meaning of words, the reading of books, the dancing of feelings, and the naming of squirrels. Jihan greatly dislikes inequity & close-toed shoes.

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