A few months ago, I was having my hair cut by a barber I hadn’t been to before. The guy cutting my hair was fairly young, handsome, funny, and interesting and – more importantly – had a great idea for trying something new with my hair.
We chatted amiably while he washed my mop and got to work, until our conversation came to current affairs. This being 2017, the American president had done something stupid, and racist, and we were talking about that, and the ridiculous claims by some of Trump’s supporters that they, in fact, were victims of “reverse racism” because they couldn’t “speak out”.
“I mean,” I remember saying as he negotiated the bumps on my skull with the clippers, “that’s nonsense. What they’re accusing people of, it doesn’t exist.”
My barber let out a small yowl that I took to be agreement, before telling me, “Yeah, right. But, you know, I do think there’s one way black people can be racist against us, us white people.”
I froze for a moment. I’ve been around a long time and can usually tell when conversations are about to take a turn for the worse. I don’t mind being challenged, but I’d not expected much of a comeback, especially one like this. I had to decide whether to bite. It was obvious he wanted to tell me what this was; it was framed like an introduction. He took the clippers away from my head for a moment and looked at me in the mirror.
“And what way is that?”
He was ready for me. He shrugged. “Well,” he began, the clippers juddering back into life, “I don’t think it’s fair how we can’t say the N-word.”
If he hadn’t been shaving my head, I probably would’ve jolted forward in shock. But with clippers against my skin, my entire body was basically Botoxed, save for my face, which I pulled into as expressive a “WTF?!” snarl as I could.
“Fair?” I exclaimed. “Why on Earth would you ever want to say that to anybody?”
He brushed his hair out of his eyes, which just moments ago had seemed beautiful and mysterious and now looked mean and pinched. With nothing behind them. “Like, when I’m singing along to a rap song, and the N-word comes up, I can’t sing it out loud.”
I cocked my head to one side in amazement as the clippers stopped. I felt a panic, like I needed to get out of there. “Is that it? Because you can’t sing along to Jay-Z or Kendrick? Can’t you just mime that word? Or better still stay something else?”
I shook hair off my gown. “Yes! Anything else! ‘Brother’ works fine. ‘Baby’, even. You can’t say the N-word out loud.”
“Yeah, but I’m not saying in that way, as an insult. I’m just repeating what Jay or Kanye are saying.”
I began to feel very hot under the lights. I noticed we were now alone in the barbershop basement, which looked less friendly than it had a few minutes ago. I was trapped with half a haircut and… a hipster racist. “That word isn’t foryou,” I spluttered. “It means something else when you say it, no matter how you’re saying it. It has history, and notoriety, and intent attached to it when it comes from your mouth.”
As predictably happens when you suggest to someone their behaviour could be construed as racist, the supposed accusation of racism became a much bigger deal than the act of racism itself. He got defensive. He wasn’t racist, he said, and that would be a horrible thing to call him. In fact, he continued, most of his friends were black. He had scissors in his hands now, and was slicing through my fringe.
“OK, so if you have black friends, why would you ever want to say that word?”
“Actually, they said to me, ‘you know [NAME], you’ve known us a long time now, you can say that word around us’, and it’s cool.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“So you say it? In front of them?!”
“Yeah, they are totally fine with it. So if they don’t mind, why should anyone else?”
“But how did it come about? How did they know you wanted to say it?”
He had no answer for me. He was either lying about the whole thing – I have no idea why anyone would brag about having special permission to say the N-word, but y’know, whatever – or he knew exactly how it had come about and had the grace to be embarrassed.
This is the thing about words. If you’re in a group where everyone is on the same level, is familiar with each other, and knows their boundaries, you can get away with saying things you wouldn’t normally be able to say in public, or among strangers. But before you say these things, even with your most trusted acolytes, shouldn’t you always ask yourself whyyou want to say that word? Whether it belongs to you, or means something else when employed by you? How powerful does it become when you say it? Does it remove the power from someone else when you use it? And is that exchange of power or control for the positive or not? Because, usually, it isn’t. Is it?
I couldn’t quite let it go, and he’d nearly finished anyway. “Why do you think they said it was OK for you to use it? Do you say it a lot?” He admired his work in the mirror, tilting my head this way and that, paying as little attention to my question as you would someone asking the time or commenting on the weather.
“Yeah, uh, you know we kind of use it when we see each other, like, wassss…”
I cut in. “Please don’t say it now.”
He shrugged. “‘K. And as for why they said I could, well, we’re mates, aren’t we? We’ve known each other a long time. We respect each other.”
It wasn’t for me to say whether his friends were right or wrong to grant him permission to use the N-word; I don’t know them or their situation. The word could be meaningless to them; they might not care who uses it. There are some people who think the more common you make a word the more you remove it of all its power, but while I’m not personally convinced, I can’t speak for the experience of others.
“Imagine how much more they’d respect you,” I wanted to say, “if you never used it at all. If you hadn’t put them in a position where, perhaps to placate you, or avoid being cast as the bad guy, they had to let you say that word. Give you the one thing – one of the very, very few things unavailable to you as a white, straight man – that you couldn’t have, just so they didn’t have to listen to you bleat on about reverse racism.”
But I didn’t say it, because he had scissors, and, as he then went on to say, it was between him and his friends, and nobody else’s business. But what about when it becomes somebody else’s business? What about when he tries the same shtick somewhere else? How is that person going to feel to see this middle-class white boy spitting out the N-word like he’s ordering a McDonald’s? So I should’ve said it. I regret it. He wasn’t exactly shy about bragging to me about what he could and couldn’t say, after all. And I was horrified he thought he could share that with me and that I’d agree. He assumed that because I was white too, I’d be an ally. Yeah mate, he was expecting me to say, you’re right; why can’t we use that word?
Because this is another thing about white people saying this word – it comes off as supreme entitlement, as that absolute fury that the playing field has, just for one solitary second, tilted ever so slightly against them. It doesn’t matter to them that the said playing field is actually already on a very steep gradient in their favour; they want to preserve every advantage for themselves. They see any slight, tiny reclamation of power and self-worth as a personal insult against them, a grab for something they have.
“But why can’t I have that? It’s mine!” they squawk, like toddlers grasping for the last biscuit in the jar as they’re left nose-to-wood with probably the only door that will ever slam in their face. They’re so used to having every single thing they desire, they even want to plunder your words, the terms you keep for yourself to make yourself feel safe or in control. They see that tiny exclusion as an infringement of their rights, all the while disregarding yours. Same as it ever was.
Incredibly, he wasn’t done yet.
“Well, you know, you’re gay, and, like, my gay mates” – truly this man’s contacts app was a Benetton-esque diversity campaign – “we say stuff like queer and fag to each other all the time. It’s just like that, isn’t it?” Another entry uncovered in the gloomy depths of his miserable personal vocabulary.
I stood up as he whipped the gown away from me. “No. It isn’t. Comparing racism and homophobia is lazy; they’re not remotely the same thing. And, I have to say…” we began the ascent back to the main shop and I paused a moment to face him. “I know some men have reclaimed that word and that’s up to them, but if anyone – anyone – called me a faggot, I’d fucking kill them. Dead.”
He took a step back. I’m small, and middle-aged, and I am not scary, but I meant every word and he knew it.
“What your friends do is their business,” I said. “But you shouldn’t say those words again, with or without them, whether you have their permission or not. They don’t belong to you.”
I did not leave a tip. He is not my barber anymore.
And this is why we need to listen to what people of colour have been saying for decades. Don’t be silent about this, or you are in danger of appearing complicit. Rock the boat. Refuse to have it. This is why you must give Pewdiepie, those pathetic white supremacists who fake “racist” attacks to stir up problems, and anybody else who doesn’t respect the force behind the things they say, a couple of words of your own.