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A Sledgehammer of a Word
by Lori Reed
I was a panelist for the roundtable economic justice workshop about wealth inequalities. I work for the St. Louis office of the American Friends Service Committee; one of our campaigns is called “Life over Debt.” The campaign emphasizes Africa’s crushing debt burden in calling for the cancellation of unfair debt held by international financial institutions. I was a little nervous as I always am when I do public speaking but I was enjoying and learning. I was one of three Black people in a crowded room but I’m used to that. Being Black often means sharing space with those that share your American experience, but not your African American experience. Sometimes something really ugly happens. Sometimes something mildly ugly happens. But the vast majority of the time, nothing ugly happens at all. As a result, it is always jolting when something weird comes (seemingly) out of nowhere.
We were into the Q and A session when I was confronted with the word “Negro.” It was not a word I was expecting to hear in a discussion titled “Reversing Wealth Inequalities” but there it was, placidly offered up to me like any other word. “Okay, calm down,” I told myself, “What is the context?” But I couldn’t calm down.
Nevertheless I made an effort to focus on what the questioner was saying. He was a White male, maybe in his 50s or 60s. His demeanor wasn’t hostile so I tried to understand why he would haul out this sledgehammer of a word. From what I could gather, he felt that I shouldn’t have used the word “we” in describing the systems that perpetuate institutionalized poverty. To paraphrase, “We should become more sensitized to the word ‘we’ just as we have become sensitized to the word ‘Negro.’ We don’t use the word Negro anymore. If I said Negro right now, people would probably get very upset.”
I did get very upset. And confused. He was standing there repeating at me the very word that he was describing as upsetting. On top of that his comment seemed absurd to me. I wasn’t the only one. A fellow panelist, also a White male, said to me, “While he’s complaining about the word ’we,’ he’s used the word ’we’ several times just in asking this question.”
I had no response for him. I knew that if there was a meaningful dialogue to come from this comment, it wasn’t about the word “we.” The word Negro was unexpected but I know that it didn’t just come out of nowhere. It came out of his White American experience.
As for my experience, I wasn’t present during the time in this country when people were being sensitized to the word Negro. I grew up with Black and African American and I use both to self-describe. When I hear the word Negro it conjures a part of American history that is painful and awe-inspiring at the same time. It’s painful because of the violent exploitation and contempt hurled at my people since our forced introduction to this country. This legacy persists and hamstrings the development of all Americans to this day. It’s awe-inspiring because of the sheer life force of my people. We’ve not only survived some of the worst humanity has to offer but continue to shine with grace, character and a uniquely vibrant and spiritual light. These gut-deep feelings are also wrapped up in my personal and family history; the history and herstory and life unfolding from which I can draw far too many anecdotes about what it means to be dehumanized based on race.
If I hear the word Negro from an African American, particularly an elder, that person is usually referring to a personal experience in times past. I’m instantly immersed in the awe-inspiring continuum of Black struggle. If I hear it from a White person, I’m instantly immersed in the contempt and the pain. It feels particularly violent when I am in front of a majority White audience as I was that day. Nobody questioned or even seemed bothered by what occurred.
Progressive White people are sometimes reluctant to talk about this; such discussions can trigger a staggering array of defense mechanisms from dismissiveness to belligerence to tears. In my opinion, progressives who make an effort to understand and be sensitive to the Black experience often fail because they don’t make an effort to understand and be sensitive to their own White experience. This can be challenging for progressives especially who give time and energy to social justice issues. If there were a piece of legislation or a policy that explicitly discriminated against African Americans, most progressive White people would take to the streets in a heartbeat, sincerely and stridently raising hell. But many of those same people do not recognize their subconscious attachment to a culture built around White supremacy.
… most progressive White people … do not recognize their subconscious attachment to a culture built around White supremacy.
Manifestations of this attachment are often weird, verging on the surreal. How else could a perfectly intelligent person stand in front of a progressive gathering and say the word Negro to an African American woman in an arguably pointless bid to ban a pronoun? Something about my presence triggered a need in him to conjure an era that obviously affected him. How it affected him, I don’t know, but my point is that he could benefit from some self-exploration. This exploration has to be self-motivated and intentional because there is no shortage of spaces where such behavior goes unchallenged by other White people. I have singlehandedly desegregated many a gathering and felt alienated and discouraged when Whites were not giving each other the nudges they need to grow.
A few minutes later, another person was at the mike. He made it very clear that he thought my suggestions were foolish. I had explained why many call Africa’s debt burden the new slavery because of the loan shark-style control held by lending institutions. I had suggested that the audience contact Senator Kit Bond and urge him to support the Jubilee Act, a piece of legislation that calls for the US to advocate for complete cancellation of unfair debt. Passage of this legislation is something that debt activists have been working on for years now. We’ve never had the momentum behind it or come as far as we have this session.
I wondered if the person who had introduced “Negro” to the room hadn’t set up an atmosphere of disrespect for me.
None of this seemed to matter to the person at the mike. “If you think the federal government is going to do something for you then you’re crazy,” he told me and the audience, effectively nullifying my presentation and questioning my sanity (as well as the sanity of anyone who took my suggestions seriously). I wondered if the person who had introduced “Negro” to the room hadn’t set up an atmosphere of disrespect for me. I was under attack while the other panelists went unchallenged.
I don’t know what “we” felt in that room that day. I asked a White colleague about it later and he doesn’t remember even hearing the word Negro. But perhaps there were others in the room that heard it and were also bothered but didn’t know how to address it. Progressives are problem solvers and can be reluctant to speak out unless they are sure they have the answers. In my opinion, this is a common mistake that is corrosive to our movement forward. Change that is the most profound and true often begins when one person simply says, “Wait a minute, I think we need to talk about this.”
Lori Reed is Director of the International Affairs program, which works to end the debt crisis for the world’s most impoverished countries. The AFSC is working to insure passage of the Jubilee Act, which calls for immediate debt cancellation without harmful conditions.
[17 dec 08]