A Return to Racial Sensitivity

When the man is busy

making niggers

it doesn't matter


what shade


you are.

--Audre Lorde, Revolution is One Form of Social Change

"NIGGER" is a word we don't hear very often. Occassionally it is whispered as part of an insensitive joke. We read it in the pages of Twain's Huckleberry Finn as a solemn reminder of a past we are too embarrassed to remember. It is a harsh and frightening word that we would much rather forget. Moreover, in the year that Rev. Jesse Jackson became a legitimate political figure in the eyes of most Americans, hearing the word reminds us of how easy it is for us to ignore the racial discrimination that continues to persist in this nation.

On the night Jackson was to speak before the Democratic National Convention, I sat at my neighborhood pub pleading with the bartender to switch the channel from ESPN to the network convention coverage. A good tip won out over the rowdy clientele, and the semi-drunken crowd began to listen to the words of the man who had become the nation's latest political phenomenon.

As Jackson made his emotional plea for us to find "common ground" this past summer, I sat mesmerized by the eloquence of his words and the power of his message. I was overwhelmed by the progress this nation had made toward racial justice--until the speech was disrupted by the men sitting next to me at the bar.

"Lousy nigger. I don't want to be saved by some god-damn nigger," said one man, a truck driver from West Virginia.

"Blacks just aren't fit to be President," said his companion, another truck driver from Tennessee. "Besides," he added, "someone would shoot him anyway."

Shocked that people actually still used the word "nigger," I struck up a conversation with them. I discovered that they felt their words were not wrong or harmful. "I'm not prejudiced," the West Virginian explained. "I just don't like them." The two men continued talking throughout Jackson's speech, preaching their racial philosophy and explaining that if my local pub were in their hometown, Blacks wouldn't be permitted to enter. They claimed their local pubs admit Blacks only through the back door.

It was fairly easy for me, a Northeastern liberal, to dismiss that conversation as an example of typical backwater Southern-thinking--until I was forced to confront racial injustice here in Boston.

LAST week, I was acting the part of the noble student activist, doing my small part to help end apartheid in South Africa. As part of a series of errands I needed to run for Harvard and Radcliffe Alumni/ae Against Apartheid, I tried to take a cab into South Boston. Insensitive to the fact that racial tensions still run high in the section of Boston made infamous by its violent anti-busing protests of the 1970s, I gave the address to my cab driver, who was Black.