“I don’t want to have this conversation,” I say, refusing to meet his eyes. Instead, I stare at the wet ground. My eyes lock onto his feet. His shoes are dirty and they’re starting to smell, but they’re his favorites so I don’t say anything. He once mentioned that this pair of shoes are so worn down that they fit his feet perfectly, as if they were made for him and only him. I would like to think that he feels the same way about me. I want him to think of me as something that is soft enough that it can be molded, but can still hold its shape when the pressure becomes too much. It’s only been a couple of months and I still feel as though I am too new, rubbing the backs of his heels raw, giving him blisters. These things take time, don’t they?
“Why not?”, he asks, the sharpness of his voice breaks my stream of consciousness and jerks my head upwards. Our eyes meet, and there is silence. Time stretches. Hours have passed. We have both aged and our youth is behind us. The silence begins to suffocate me and finally, I open my mouth to speak. I tell him that I’m so sick of having this conversation. I tell him that I’ve been having this conversation for so long that I no longer need to read the script because the lines are engraved into my brain. I tell him that I am so sick of having to explain why this word, when said by people who look like him, hurts me. I am sick of listening to white people trying to defend their right to say it because in their minds, “it’s just a word.” After all, they said ‘nig-gah,’ without the ‘er’ sound, so they think they’re being friendly, not racist. This is a bonding exercise for white people, one that they all learned together at camp when they were younger, in-between making lanyards and learning how to swim with the newest rap CD blasting in a boombox on the shore. “Take it easy,” they tell me, their eyes rolling so far back into their sockets that I begin to worry that they might have just developed brain damage. They tell me that I get offended so easily, so wouldn’t it be better for me to take a chill pill and lighten up for once?
So, to avoid this impending fight, I tell my white boyfriend that I don’t want to talk about it anymore because, after all, how much more can be said about this subject? Most importantly, how long would he be willing to listen to what I have to say?
He is curious about why I responded the way that I did. He is a man of science—, an engineer. He is great with machines and numbers, but not so great with women or people who played sports in high school. His eyes are brown and his hair curls when he hasn’t washed it for a few days and that’s what I love about him. I am not his first love, but I am the first girl that he’s dated that is nice to him and listen when he talks. He makes me dinner and I make him laugh. Things are not ideal, but they are getting better. We are hopeful.
He tells me that he isn’t a racist—mind you, I never called him one—and then proceeds to give me the names of all his black friends, the same black friends that let him say “nigga,” as if all black people have the same experiences and therefore, think alike; as if all black people are props to be used in anecdotes to make the white storyteller look more human. I am not one of those black friends. Frankly, before this conversation, I didn’t even know that he had any black friends, yet here they are, ready to have their names placed into a hat to be blindly drawn out so that my white boyfriend can explain to me, his black girlfriend, his Nubian princess, his favorite kind of chocolate treat, why he isn’t a racist.
I don’t tell him that just because I happen to be black and he happens to be dating me means that there’s no chance that he could be a racist. I am not a pass. There will be no black passes given out today. My experiences are my own and just because he may nod his head from time to time doesn’t mean that he gets it. I must give him credit where credit is due though: he has never uttered the line “I don’t see color” in our relationship so far, but does he even have to? Of course he sees color. He’s ignorant, not blind. He is very aware of the fact that I’m black and I’m reminded daily of the fact that he’s white. We can see each other as we truly are.
It is beginning to get chilly. The air is almost too crisp even though it is only the beginning of September in Portland. I pause the conversation that I didn’t want to have and wrap my coat tighter around myself. He sighs impatiently, those big brown eyes staring up at the night sky. When he speaks again, his tone is almost patronizing. “Honey,” he whispers, “isn’t it just a word in the grand scheme of things? What does it really matter?”
I turn to face him, the tips of my ears burning. I stare into those eyes and I begin to think that this might be the first time that I’ve seen him clearly. It is in this moment that I start to wonder if maybe our skin color isn’t the only big difference that we have. Now we must have this conversation because without it, my experiences will stay my own and I need to share them with him. If this relationship has any chance of surviving, I must talk, and he must listen.
I tell him that this word matters because it was once hurled at me from a pickup truck when I was fourteen years old. I had been walking down the street with my best friend and her little brother. The drivers were teenagers—white boys with matching wide grins and backward baseball caps. They were probably only two years older than me, now that I think about it, but hearing them unleash that word and then peel off towards the green traffic light made me think that they were so much older at the time. My best friend had looked at me, mouth agape, and asked me if I was okay. I stared straight ahead, willing the light to change once again, for the ground to stop shaking, and for my face to stop burning. I told her that, “It happens,” because truthfully, it has been happening to me since I was in the second grade. I didn’t look over at her when I said that though. I was afraid that my shame would eat me alive.
My white boyfriend is silent, but he is attentive. I tell him that it matters because it is the same word that a man called me before ending the conversation on a dating app. We had been chatting for hours and he asked me to send him a photo, eagerly telling me that he couldn’t wait to see how beautiful I was. I hesitated but I sent him the photo anyway, needing to hear someone tell me that I was pretty.
I tell him that it matters because it was/is/will forever be the first insult thrown at any black person in the comment section of any Internet post and that same commenter will be harassed and they will release a half-assed apology about how they were hacked, or their comment wasn’t intended to be racist because guess what? Their best friend’s cousin’s sister’s daughter is black, and they love her so much. “I don’t see skin color,” they’ll proclaim before deleting the offensive statement.
My face is hot but after saying what I had to say, I look at him with hope in my eyes. Maybe he got it. Maybe I have taught him something on this street corner. In the end, it matters because I love him. It matters because he makes me laugh and because I want to stay in this relationship. It matters because even though I have told him all of this—even though he stood here with me, looking at me with those brown eyes that I love so much—he still takes the time to remind me that he’s not that guy. He insists he isn’t racist and that he would never use that word to hurt me or anyone that looked like me. He just doesn’t want to censor himself while he’s blasting a song in the car. He just wants to be able to show his white friends how cool his black girlfriend is, no matter how much I cringe, and bite my tongue and hide my feelings. He just wants to belong and isn’t that what we all want? My white boyfriend just wants to spend another afternoon at camp.
The conversation ends there, with neither of us getting anywhere. The dates on the calendar have changed and suddenly, we have been together for over a year. For the most part, his views on the subject have progressed and he has stopped questioning me on why he isn’t allowed to say “nigga.” Everything is calm, and I have won the battle. Then one afternoon, I ask my white boyfriend how one of his friends that he plays with on his PS4 is doing, and he becomes quiet. It’s his turn to look at the ground. He mumbles something unintelligible and I ask him to repeat what he just said. It turns out that they are no longer friends and it’s because of me. “How so?” I ask, willing him to look at me. He doesn’t want to tell me what happened, but I am pushy and demanding so I continue to ask him until finally, he caves.
It turns out that he had posted a photo on Snapchat, showcasing the tacos that he had proudly made us the week before. One of his friends had called him over their gaming headset, asking him why he hadn’t made me chicken and waffles or something more “ethnic.” My boyfriend was confused and asked his friend what he meant by that comment. His friend responded, “Well, because your girlfriend’s a nigger” and then proceeded to taunt my boyfriend over the headset, singing the word “nigger” loudly in his ear. They are no longer friends, he tells me, his face growing redder. He asks me if I’m okay and I begin to cry because on one hand, I want to tell him that “it happens” because it does. On the other hand, I want to know if that is how he sees me now. I don’t say anything and instead, I sit on the bed and I cry. My body shakes, and my throat is filled with choking sobs.
“Fuck that guy. He isn’t shit,” he tells me, doing his best to console me. I already knew that, which is why I am not crying for him. I am crying for every moment that a white man has told me that they find me “pretty for a black girl.” I am crying for every single racial insult that has been hurled my way, both over the internet and in person. I am crying for every single occasion where microaggressions have become the norm when interacting with people who look like my boyfriend. Finally, I am done crying and I turn to him and I ask him the question that I’ve been wanting to ask all evening: “It’s not just a word, is it?” He doesn’t answer but his silence is clear. Now he’s the one who doesn’t want to have this conversation.
Rumpus original art by Leesa Travis.