One of the cool things about marriage (there are many) is that you get to say most anything you want to your spouse. Communications gurus advise that you speak what’s on your heart rather than keep it in, something I’ve found doesn’t come naturally to most of us guys, but which can be quite liberating when you get the hang of it. Your spouse is your captive audience and you are hers.
But there are some things that should never be said by a husband to a wife, or vice versa, and some words, in particular, that a white person should never speak to his black wife or any other person of her complexion. You can guess at least one word I have in mind, but let me first give it a little context.
On a recent trip through the southern United States, I found myself in conversation with an affable pair of black gentlemen on the front stoop of their home on the outskirts of an Alabama town. When it emerged mid-way through our conversation that I am married to a black woman, three things happened.
First, our hitherto pleasant and easygoing chat took on a more serious, profound tenor: the line between neighborly niceties and explicit racial recognition had been crossed.
Second, they were noticeably pleased, even impressed by the fact and said as much to me. It seemed to enhance my credibility and reputation in their eyes. I was reminded of the feeling of acceptance as umuntu I have been privileged to experience in the company of Sindiso’s South African family, especially when making a good-faith, if halting, effort to speak their home language, Zulu. (Umuntu is the Zulu name for “person”, generally reserved for black people and connoting “humane”. It developed it’s specificity to black people at an historical moment when white people were not behaving very humanely toward the black masses.)
Third, the younger of the two gentlemen felt obliged to raise the following grave concern, in the form of a question whose assumed answer was yes: When I get mad at my black wife, do I call her the N word?
He went on to explain that his sister was married to a white man (an impressive fact in the still much-segregated South); that he had no objection to their union in principle; but that he was deeply troubled by the fact that her husband wielded the odious epithet like a weapon over his wife’s head. He was certain that the husband used it when they fought and he feared it was not limited to such times. Wasn’t it inevitable, he wondered?
What he did not say – for it did not need to be said in words – was that the N word represents a larger, loathsome truth: the wife and husband aren’t equal. Black and white aren’t equal. Indeed, nothing in his life experience could seriously challenge the assumption gained in youth in this southern town that black will never stand on par with white as long as he’s alive*. Thus, so long as society decrees the two are fundamentally unequal, the prospects of a healthy marriage are remote in his eyes. Progress, yes – but hardly the Promised Land.
To unpack his concern, let me try a simple metaphor. Imagine the United States and Trinidad form an official alliance, pledging full partnership, mutual defense, equality in every sense. On paper, their rights and powers are indistinguishable. But the underlying inequality remains. Should the U.S. wish, it could send in the 87th Airborne and occupy Trinidad in hours. It could drive the Trinidadians into the sea.
I grant it’s a ridiculous comparison in at least one respect: I do not command a military in our home and Sindiso is one very tough lady when the occasion demands. But even in our time and place, the N word is a kind of nuclear weapon of its own. The fact that I could speak this odious word gives me a latent power to be feared by her because of its capacity to terminate trust and evict equality from our relationship. As such, it should by similarly feared by me and any white mate who wields it, however unwillingly, in his most intimate relationships.
Our hearts go out to the sister of my black friend in Alabama. We mourn the loss of trust that came – if it had not come already – when her white husband first uttered the hated word. More than that, we mourn the fact of what that word represents, both yesterday and today. You do not have to live down South to know that with the N word comes a mountain of historical and cultural hatred and oppression that we are still striving to overcome.
Addendum: Some other things white husbands don’t get to say to their black wives:
- If his relatives don’t invite her to family gatherings: “It’s not that they don’t like you or are racist or anything… They’re just of a different generation.”
- When she talks about experiences of discrimination: “Honey, it’s not real; you’re just imagining it.”
- When she’s had a tough day trying to make it in a racially unequal world and wants to talk about it with him (seeking his understanding and support): “Why do we always have to talk about race? Can’t we take a break?!” (Remember, she doesn’t get a break from experiencing the world as a black person!)
- When people walking by on the street verbally insult her (perhaps calling her “dirty” or a “prostitute”): “It doesn’t matter … they’re jerks. Just ignore them.” (We’ll leave it to you to decide whether or not to punch the offenders :)
- When white people tell racist insider jokes about black people: sit by quietly or laugh along or add, “I’ve got a good joke…”
- When she comes home from the hair salon with a new look: “Is it real?!” or “Is it yours?!” (just don’t go there :)
- When faced with unsavory stereotypes of black people, on TV or in real life: “Yeah, I’m so glad you’re not like those… You’re different.”
- Any comparative references to apes, monkeys, or their features (duh)…
- Any “master-slave” jokes or innuendo (duh)…
*If you doubt either the validity of his claim that black and white aren’t equal, except in formal legalistic terms, or that the N word is still toxic to the core, I encourage you to check out Jabari Asim’s monumental study of American racism and its most potent word, The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and Why. As Asim notes in the introduction,
Thus far in this nation’s development, it has been the long, sick, and twisted history of tangled relations between blacks and whites that has both defined and propelled America’s unique status on the planet. If the U.S. remains a noteworthy international symbol as a melting pot and laboratory of interracial experiment, then the persistence of white supremacist strains in the naitonal culture is an especially useful gauge by which progress (or the lack of it) is measured.