Remembering the Time I Got Called the ‘N-Word’ in Public

In her new book, political analyst Nanjala Nyabola examines a word that carries centuries of systematic violence, deliberate cruelty and assault.
October 26, 2020, 11:55am
Protesters at a Black Lives Matter march in London in June.
Protesters at a Black Lives Matter march in London in June. Photo: Alex Rorison

The only time someone has ever called me “n****r” to my face was on a subway in Manhattan, just by Times Square. Neither I nor my friends were ready for it. The older white lady in the black fur coat and starched, high-waisted blue jeans was asking for money. She asked my friends first, and they told her they didn’t have any, and we held our breath because one of those friends was a hijabi and this was the US after September 11. But she said nothing to my friend. 

Only when I said no, and as she walked away into the subway, did the woman say loudly and directly to me, “Oh, what do you know? You’re just a n****r anyway.”

I don’t know how to describe in succinct terms what that word feels like. I can tell you what it sounds like – the bitterness in the “n” and the angry “g”, doubled up to emphasise the ugliness in the heart of the person who uses it, casually spat but designed to burn through the skin like acid. I can explain to you how it sears through your spirit, how when I think about this incident my ears still faintly ring with rage and also a measure of humiliation. Humiliation because there is no other word in the English language that can carry with it the same weight of centuries of systematic violence, deliberate cruelty, venomous derision and arbitrary assault.

You run through every variation of speaking up for yourself in rapid fire – I’m not sure every cell in my body has ever worked so quickly to try and think of anything I could say that would mean something, in the fog of rage and hatred that was coursing through my own body. Who does she think she is? I am smart. I am educated. I am worthy.

In retrospect, after years of being bombarded with videos of Black people in the US stomped on, shot at, spat at, beaten down and degraded by white people, I realise now that I was lucky she just walked away. By the time the ringing in my ears had gone down a decibel or two – at least low enough for me to think of something quippy to say – all I could see was the black fur weaving through the crowded subway car, and not the wrong end of a gun.

There is nothing a Black person can say to a racist that can even come close to what that word does to us. This is a word that was created specifically to crush the spirit of the person who heard it: it was created to be the vocal articulation of a system of violence. And so when you hear it said to you, there’s anger, frustration and humiliation, because there is almost nothing you can do to defend yourself against its weight. There is nothing you can say back that will have the same effect as the thing you just heard.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that hearing that word from a white person’s lips is a deeply harrowing experience. If you know your history, it makes you think about everyone who heard it before you, and what came next, in a not-so-distant time when young men in the Congo could have their arms cut off for not tapping enough rubber, or young Black women could be turned into permanent sexual slaves. I hear that word and I remember taking a knee in the dungeons at Elmina Castle in Ghana, where slaves were held before they were sent off to the New World – a dank, desolate place that still smells like oppression. A single word that threatens unspeakable violence, and demands that the hearer do something – anything – but what? Do you punch? Do you yell back? Do you shoot? What can you actually do when someone picks up the entire weight of an ugly violent history, condenses it and wields it as a weapon?

Anti-Black racism is a global problem that doesn’t make national distinctions, a common enemy that must be named and put in its proper place. It is not an inevitable enemy. No one comes into the world knowing to hate. It is something people are taught. It is a product of decisions followed by actions, designed to create an entire sub-class of people whose exclusion can be handily justified and used as a bogey man for the fears of people who don’t want to put in the work and contemplate the humanity of other people. Toni Morrison once observed that there are people in the world who think that they need racism, because without it they may have to confront their own fundamental shortcomings. Racism is ignorance scaffolded by intellectual laziness and bloodlust.

But it also creates an imperative for people to work together against it, because its tentacles are so long and deep in everything. The onus isn’t on the victims of racism to prove that they are worthy, but on the rest of us who have a measure of privilege in a deeply unequal and unjust world to make a better way more feasible. We should never feel the need to negotiate or justify our humanity with people who are determined not to see it. We can, however, do our part to dismantle the structures that make such calculated ignorance and violence feasible. Speak up for those that need defending. Connect the dots between the struggles that are grounded in anti-Black racism and establish a united front against them. Show up for the resistance. Tell the stories about societies and histories that were organised differently: where the value of a person wasn’t measured against the colour of their skin or the depth of their wallet.

I still get angry sometimes when I imagine myself back on that subway carriage, rage roiling inside me and rolling off my skin. I feel petulant with it. I feel frustrated that a single word can reduce me to such impotence and frustration, and that so many millions of people in the world have it so much worse. I think about all the countless ways that a single word can escalate into violence and death overseen by state structures complicit in the humiliation and degradation of Black people.

This edited extract is taken from Travelling While Black: Essays Inspired by a Life on the Move by Nanjala Nyabola, a writer and political analyst based in Nairobi, Kenya. A constant traveller, Nanjala has visited over 70 countries across four continents.

Travelling While Black is published by Hurst Publishers on the 19th of November.