It was a word I heard a lot growing up. The almighty N-word.
Where I grew up, it was just a way of describing the worst, a way of describing every ethnicity from yours to mine.
Going to school there was more of the same. If you heard the n-word at least twice a day, well, that was a slow day at public school.
If I could go back to my then-self, and all ethnic children around those parts, what I’d tell them and myself: “If the worst they can call you is what you are, then they really don’t have much.” Which wouldn't have taken away the sting from that particular word, or the contempt it was always spat out with.
My friend Walt told me this story, at a party. He went to school one town over. When I heard it, I frowned. Until I heard the end of it. In David Allen Coe form, I realized that my friend had written the perfect racist story.
It was the same sort of morning, cold dew on the lawn of the high school, cheerleaders and jocks standing outside, all the beautiful people, impossibly perfect in their letterman jackets and tight jeans. Beautiful people with hateful smiles and beautifully made-up eyes, all waiting for you to fall, to stumble, to drop your books. Waiting for you to fuck up, their laughter ready to greet your mistakes.
Finally inside, you draw a deep breath, because you aren’t one of the impossibly perfect.
You’re just you, with your blemishes, your homework done inside your backpack; you’re safe and sane inside your own imperfect, lonely shell.
As you approach the water fountain, you notice the sign, as if you’re exquisitely attuned to it.
That one sign, the sign that says everything you’ve felt the whole time you’ve gone to this school. The sign on this water fountain that bears the hateful words “WHITES ONLY.”
The bathrooms are both marked the same. WHITE ONLY.
The year is 2008. You check the bathroom again, but the sign remains the same. You’re so aware of how brown your skin is, how dark and un-white.
You want to find somewhere to hide from those words, but there is no refuge, so you go to class with your face burning, your embarrassment, knowing that someone there, maybe a couple of some ones put those signs up. But you never know who. You have your suspicions, but you never really know.
The principal does his duty, which is to round up all the usual suspects, those boys with wranglers, that circular skoal tattoo that’s washed and faded into their jeans, and he questions them. He questions them, but you wonder. You know this school better than he does, better than he ever will. You know that at least four of the ten he called into his office are already racists.
Three days later, and all his interrogations find nothing. Three days later, and even though those signs are gone, you flinch every time you drink from the water fountain. You flinch every time you piss into one of those impossibly white porcelain toilets. Those whites only toilets.
The atmosphere in the school has reached a fever-pitch. Everyone can feel the word NIGGER resounding in the halls. The racist skoal jockeys have stopped making their jokes, the teachers all treat you with a new brand of kindness. The principal smiles at you in the hallways, as if to tell you that he’s going to find out who did this.
This may be some backwater school, but goddamn it, we’re not the fucking KKK. Even as he smiles at you, it makes you sick in the pit of your stomach, because he’s never even acknowledged you before.
With a sinking stomach, you decide that you need to fess up. You need to confess to him, because you know exactly who the racist in the school is. You know who put up those signs; you have no doubt, because you were there when they went up.
When you walk into his office, your brown skin looking harsh and unlovely in the fluorescent lights of his office, you tell him. You tell him who put those signs up, you tell him why. You try to tell him what kind of school he’s been in, but when you tell him who put those signs up, he doesn’t hear anything else. You can see the anger in his face, and you’re not surprised when you look down at your shoes.
You’re not surprised when he suspends you from school for three days.
You’re not surprised.
Because it was you who put those signs up.