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Unpacking the N word’s Relationship to Diversity in Northern NY

I am sure some of you may know that I do a presentation on the N word around the country from time to time, often with a colleague of mine, Dr. Eddie Moore Jr. We actually had the pleasure of doing it recently at SUNY Plattsburgh and enjoyed an audience of over 300 participants examining various dimensions of the rhyme and reason, power and pain associated with such a problematic word. So, I think quite a bit about this word, yes, even when it isn’t aimed at me.

I also engage many educational and business organizations in discussions on diversity and social justice. In fact, it is easier naming the schools in up, up, Upstate New York that I haven't engaged than the one's I have. So, you don't take a journey like that without stories galore. I recently shared with the ninth and tenth graders at Peru High School that two northern New Yorkers, one a seventh grader and the other an eighth grader, from two different schools, both responded to a question I asked them in similar ways. The question I asked was “When you hear the word diversity, what is the one word that comes to mind for you?” The answers I have received from this question are always intriguing, and wide ranging. People offer as answers “differences,” "energy," “choices,” bullying," “prejudice,” “fear,” "respect," etc. It never fails to amaze me what people might say. But these two students, upon being asked “when you hear the word diversity, what is the one word that comes to mind for you?,” both answered “nigger.”

What could have possibly been the reason the N word would be their answer to a question that basically asks what is a synonym for diversity, or the first word that enters your mind when you hear the word “diversity?” Now that we have been kicking around some different topics the last two weeks, I feel as if I have a crew that will assist me in attempting to tear the cover off of this topic so that we can examine it. Straight up, I need someone to help me unpack this conundrum.


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It's probably pretty simple and uncomplicated ... in a way. You've kind of set up a "word association" thing, and since "diversity" is very often discussed as a concept opposite of various forms of racism, those two kids associated diversity with what to them was it's opoosite. Like "dog" / "cat".

I say "in a way" uncomplicated because of course, both "diversity" and "the N word" carry so much history, emotion, and other baggage ... both societal and personal ... that nothing about either of these things can ever really be uncomplicated.

*** What's happening A? So, diversity and the N word are both simple, uncomplicated, and "can [n]ever really be uncomplicated." When a mind that I respect like your's presents a reality where these terms are accessible and inaccessible, it makes me feel validated that I am not alone in engaging their complexity! I understand the dog/cat dynamic, but dog is to cat like diversity is to N word. I'm struggling with that one A! Perhaps if you said a bit more it might provide me with some clarity. -- J.W. ***

I think A is being a little simplistic and optomistic. I would hope the two young students were simply playing the "opposite game" with you but I fear it's not the case.
There is a little secret about the North Country I've heard few people address. Prisons, while providing some sense of economic prosperity, have also caused social problems. The work is so stressful that not everyone is built to take it. I mean, you spend your whole day among people who would just as soon kill you as look at you, and, their team dramatically outnumbers yours. If you can't compartmentalize that, it's bound to eat away at you. More than one prison-guard spouse has told me how their loved one changed after working in the system for some period of time - and it's never change for the better.
Racism is one of those social problems. Imagine if the only contact you had with people of another race was in that setting. We know that minorities are a disproportionate part of the prison population, so, a CO is likely to encounter more minorites in prison than anywhere else he/she is likely to travel. And many of the inmates (depending on the facility) are capable of everything from just lying to your face to throwing their own feces at you, or ripping your throat out. And, by the way, these groups often refer to each other and themselves using racial pajoratives. It would take a special kind of intellectual skill to leave all of that at the prison gates when you go home every night. I know a few people who can do it. I couldn't.
Now, you're probably going to say something like "well even so, most inmates are caucasion, so, why don't the guards project those feelings on whites?" Because there are plenty of positive relationships with white people outside the jail setting to offset those feelings. Their friends, their families - virtually everyone with whom they have positive interactions are all caucasion.
So, lets take this prison dynamic and bring it home - where the CO needs to unload and unwind - telling stories about work to his/her spouse, and children. And when you're talking about someone who tried to shank you, you're not likely to use the politically-correct term associated with his particular race. Those stories might be all the family ever hears about blacks or hispanics with no real-life positive interactions to balance them out. The stories are told and re-told for years over beers and Bar-B-Ques....and a seventh-grader equates "diversity" with "nigger."
Now before I get hate mail from COs I want to make something clear. I couldn't do your job and I thank God that you can. I've been inside some of the nastiest jails in the area surrounded by protection and I'm still scared to death. Many COs, maybe even most COs go about their work and family lives with no negative impact. But just like coal miners of a certain time were likely to have their lungs poluted by coal dust, I'm affraid ones soul can't help but be poluted when working in such a hostile environment. The miners now have protection against the coal dust. But how do you protect a person's soul?
To generalize. One is not born a racist. Human children are the most adaptable creatures on earth. They will adust to their surroundings and their experiences with remarkable speed. They are open to as much diversity as their is in the world. Diversity is their natural state. Racism, on the other hand, - use of the "N-word" - is not born, but bred. It must be taught and experienced over and over again to take hold.

*** Card Buddy, my man, my man, talking about upping the ante! You took my philosophical pondering to a whole different level. And your analogy of the coal miners and the impact on the souls of the COs, well, if you haven't read Plato's dialogue, the Phaedo, then you are quite the intuitive chap!

CB, that North Country secret is not as much a secret as you think. In my seven years in the North Country I have heard some version of that spiel on numerous occassions, but never as articulate as you just framed it. I recognize it might have some validity here and there because many people just aren't sophisticated enough to recognize that the red car that cut them off in the parking lot is not a harbinger on what their experience will be with the next red car they encounter. Additionally, and this is one of the most trite sayings around, but some of the people I most respect are COs. There is a CO that has been involved to varying extents in coaching my son since we have lived here who I just think is an amazing man in terms of the energy he puts into all the kids, not just his own. My son has always been the only black child on his team, but has not been slighted in anyway. If anything, he has been celebrated for being an energetic kid who attempts to be and stay in the game. I imagine this CO must have had some awkward exchanges with Black and Brown men, as I have had some with White students. But wise people recognize that jerks will be jerks, and it needs to be left at that. I don't develop hatred for White students because one disrespects me. As a matter of fact, I consider the source (an often very immature younger person), put it into perspective, and move on.

Regarding the kids of people who foster hate for others, if there is enough of a concerted effort to teach them respect, they will learn it, in spite of what may be taking place within their homes. After all, I agree with Hilary Clinton's assertion that it takes a village to raise a child. If the other homes in the village have bought into a philosophy of respect, and dare I say, love, then the chances are good that there will be enough positive messages surrounding children who aren't getting them in their homes that the negative messages will be offset.

Lastly, when you stated that I would probably say "well even so, most inmates are caucasion, so, why don't the guards project those feelings on whites?," you were wrong there CB. I want to live in a world where guards are doing their jobs with a strong sense of fairplay, period. I don't want to see White guards beating down White inmates because they are beating down Black inmates. That is not how I roll! -- J.W. ***

I am not sure that my comment will fit into your message here but there is something that I need to let the people know about. While watching Real Time with Bill Maher last night one of his guests was Russel Simmons, the self proclaimed rap mogul. He was telling a story about a book he is publishing and how the title came to be. The line was "So I called my editor and told him I wanted to change the title. Damn it if that nigger didn't get right off the golf course and get it done." This is the same man who a few weeks ago on Oprah was fire shots at Don Imus for Nappy Headed Ho's! My question to you Mr. Wiley is simple. How can America take that word as seriously as you and most people would like when you have a leader of the black community throwing it out there with one side of his face and then blasting someone for using it with another?

*** Jim, something tells me that while you claim to ask a simple question, it is a great deal more complex than it actually is. Just because Russell Simmons is a rap mogul doesn't mean he is a black leader. And if he is, does it mean that all black people must adhere to the same level of engagement in response to certain societal paradoxes, like use or non-use of the N word. Mr. Jim, let me ask you a question. Do all democrats or all republicans think and act alike? If your answer is no, and I imagine it would have to be, then why are you holding Black people to a different standard. Russell Simmons may be one of the many black people who believes it is okay for Blacks to use the N word, but not for others. Simmons may be a hypocrite, or an idiot (which I doubt).

One thing is for sure though, people who care about people care about the things that are hurtful to others. They don't look for reasons to waffle on the use of hurtful terms because others use those terms. I don't imagine that is what you were doing, but having done this dance often enough, I know that it has been a strategy often employed by people who don't want to grant a level of privilege in using what outsiders have determined as derogatory terms, but that in-group members use as a term of endearment (blacks with the Nword, women who use girl amongst themselves, but don't want men calling them that, people with disabling conditions who may use the term Crip amongst themselves, gays with queer or other terms outgroup members might find offensive). It makes me think of the time I was playing tennis with a group of guys and I was told I could call one of the guys whose last name was White, Whitey! I straight told the group, I wasn't going out like that. That was a privilege that he extended to everyone, that I opted to not accept. Sometimes, it is like that! -- J.W. ***

First, I want to applaud Card Buddy for his insightful comment to your blog on the “N- Word” and diversity in the North Country. I know that Card Buddy’s comments aren’t an indictment of COs or the prison system in the North Country, but the work conditions of that job can carry over to home life and create attitudes towards minorities.

Each of us should explore the environment and forces that molded our attitudes and us. Growing up in the suburbs in a mid-size city in Pennsylvania, I attended all-white parochial grade school and high school. While in high school, I worked as a “temp” employee with the Post Office. It was part of a program that helped students earn money for college and gave me my first experiences in a diverse work environment. It provided a setting where young teens, from different racial and economic backgrounds, were working together for eight hours every Saturday and Sunday. As time went by, we got to know each other and became friends. We got together outside of work – played sports, visited each other’s homes for meals, etc. One evening, I remember going to the Martin Luther King Center to watch my friend Kenny Brown play in the summer league championship game. I was the only white person in an auditorium filled with blacks. Walking into the building, I recall several people challenging why I was there. Just as quickly, others said, “ …leave him alone, he’s here to watch some basketball”. It gave me an appreciation of what it must have been like for the handful of black students that had just started attending my previously all-white high school.

From a family perspective, I was fortunate that my father grew up in a diverse neighborhood. I can’t ever remember the “N word” being used in our household. Several years ago, my wife and I moved to another city and began the search for a grade school for our three children. We had several choices, but decided on the most “diverse” school from a racial, ethnic and economic standpoint. We never regretted our decision and our three children were enriched by the experience.

For me and for my family, experiencing diversity has negated any connection with the “N-word”.


*** C.m.B., so that explains why you have so much flava!!! When you consider that our world is now global, your and your lady love's instincts were quite good. Just as the commercials aren't overstating it when they say that the new Oldsmobile isn't their parents' Oldsmobile, this world we live in isn't the same either. The sooner all of us make this adjustment, the better we will be prepared to engage one another on respectful terms.

Oh, and I wish Kenny had taken the time to teach you some basketball skills. -- J.W. ***

Loved seeing you at Peru High School last week! Please visit us again soon.
The n-word brings a different memory for me. I associate it, personally, with my innocent childhood rhyming game that helped choose who got the bigger half of the sandwich or the best cookie. 'eeny, meeny miney moe, catch a n_____ by the toe". I sang that rhyme happily without a single thought as to what I was describing ,though now the visual makes me shudder.. It wasn't until I got a bit older that I realized that "n____ " was not a "nice" word, so I easily substituted "tiger" (it fit) and my little rhyme was preserved. When I reached jr high school, my most precious friend was a girl named Pauline Wright. She was one of perhaps two black students at Plattsburgh Junior High School. I thought she was so wonderful that I never associated the n-word with her.
I guess I have heard the n-word used directly in my presence but I cannot recall when. I never could grasp the purpose for the venom behind such a word.
I, too, am puzzled at the association with diversity and the n-word. To link two such opposite terms : one that suggests inclusion and tolerance to one that suggests intolerance and belittling, is almost an oxymoron-like "jumbo shrimp".

*** Lisa, well, since we actually did see one another at the 11th and 12th graders presentation, you now know not to casually invite me anywhere. I just may show up!

I remember being introduced to the Nword at a very young age. Like you, it was a very odd situation for me as a youngster to hear this problematic word and realize that somehow it was supposed to frame me. And the word tiger as a replacement for the Nword, well, something fairly close to that got my attention. I never felt comfortable reading/watching the Winnie the Pooh series (in books or television). Why? Because Tigger was much too close to the Nword for my taste. The pain and scars we carry manifest themselves in some very strange ways. -- J.W. ***

After reading the other comments to this post, I agree that I was probably being too optimistic to suggest that the kids' association was a simple as an opposite association. It's still a possibility, though. I guess my thought is that when we hear people make insensitive comments or use unacceptable terms, we would be wise to find out first what's behind them ... hate and prejudice, or thoughtless ignorance.

*** A, I agree! An examination of the method to what we deem as madness is always a good strategy! -- J.W. ***

I am a PSU grad, and I have always followed your presentations about this situation, and I really enjoy it. I am from the North Country as well, but do not live there currently.
Reading about what happened during your presentation is, well, not totally puzzling. In my humble opinon I think that is stems from the family ro friends, or moslty ignorance. It is not uncommon for people in the North Country to use that word, especially in a joking fashion, or even, sadly in a derogatory, hurtful way. I know this will sound obvious but racism is still very much alive and well in the world today, and I think many people do not even like the word "diversity". I am wondering what your reaction was when the two students said that, and what did you talk about after that?
Keep up the good work J.W!

*** Bryan, I am going to attempt to keep up the effort. I appreciate the fact you consider it good work.

I don't know for sure what your racial identity is, but assuming it may be white, perhaps with some people your assertion that racism is still alive in contemporary society carries more weight than if I said it. Believe me, when a black person says that, many naysayers call it whining.

What did I say when the two youngsters dropped the Nword? I said nothing, not a thing! I continued to conduct the session, but was very concerned for both of the youngsters well being. I figured that the points I would make in the presentation would challenge them in ways that would be more in an educational context they might own. Also, I didn't know how much authenticity was in their comments. They could have been saying it for shock value. -- J.W. ***

I agree with Card Buddy in his thoughts about the prison system having an impact on families in the North Country. His response took me some places. Is this why they place prisons in areas like this? Renowned Black intellectual W.E.B. DuBois once said, “A Negro slum may be in dangerous proximity to a white residence quarter…One thing, however, seldom occurs: the best of the whites and the best of the Negroes almost never live in anything like close proximity…both whites and blacks see commonly the worst of each other”(The Souls of Black Folk,121). Now, being that I have never seen a “negro slum” in the North Country, a state pen would amount to such in my mind. Most of the blacks living in this area are living life behind bars, hence the worst and probably the only blacks many residents up here see or hear about. Because of the stereotypes of the blacks who are incarcerated (some of which are perpetuated by inmates and therefore seen as truth); many whites living in the North Country are bred into racism. Hence, “both whites and blacks see commonly the worst of each other.” There are exceptions, for example Mr. Wiley who is an influential black man in our area, striving to make a difference and spread diversity, not just in race but sexual orientation, gender, ableism, class, privilege, etc.

Dubois said it best when he prophesied, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line” (The Souls of Black Folk, xii). Even though we are no longer in the 20th Century, this problem still exist. This is the reason the two youths jumped to the word “nigger” when they heard diversity. Our society is hung up on color and will continue to be if individuals allow it.

*** Via Via, I appreciate the compliment regarding my profile being a positive one of blackness in the North Country. However, that would largely depend on how you define positive. Some don't necessarily see promoting social justice that challenges individual privileges as positive. But I will put on my Sunday's finest and attempt to project whatever it is you see/saw for those who judge an entire sub-culture by one individual. -- J.W. ***

Mr. Wiley,
What do you think the two would have said if i was a white person asking them what they thought the word Diversity ment, or do they reall know?. On the other hand you have a very Intelligent well educatied *black man asking them what Diversity means to them an they tell you the "N" word. What where you expecting ?. I think some of these so called rapp music singers that are making money but disrespecting there culture, an why is it ok to have a person of another call me "boy"?, but If I respond to a *Black man as boy is disrepectful. This seem's like a play on words between Black & white.

*use the tearm Black man is not ment to affend I aslo could have used African American.

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