Elizabeth Day: What I said to the man who used the n-word
Hair: Fabio Nogueira. Make-up: Ruby Hammer. Styling: Holly Elgeti. Dress, Stine Goya, fenwick.co.uk. Jewellery, AlIghieri
I went to a barbecue recently. Normally I avoid them like the plague but, this being the time of the plague, my socialising options have been drastically limited. I found myself surrounded by a small gathering of people, all standing at an appropriate distance, eating tepid hotdogs and getting ketchup on their clothes.
There were screaming toddlers, high on fizzy drinks, and the weather was so hot I feared I had sweated through my dress. Still, it was pleasant.
It would have remained so had I not found myself in conversation with a white man in his 50s who’d clearly had one too many alcoholic beverages. I’d never met him before but he decided to share his views on the Black Lives Matter movement. He couldn’t understand what the protesters were asking for, he said.
‘I think they want an end to systemic racism,’ I answered. My interlocutor objected to this, and the conversation spiralled into what I would categorise as racism and what he insisted was common sense. I don’t want to rehash his offensive arguments in detail. Suffice to say he claimed people with a different colour of skin were ‘lazy’, criminally inclined and then he used the n-word.
In a way, it made it easier to combat his views. When a white person uses that term so casually, there is incontrovertible prejudice at play. Racism can be insidious – but I had an obvious example, staring me in my white face. Usually, I am conflict avoidant. I don’t like arguments and I try to seek the path of least resistance and greatest agreement. But this was different. And not only because I didn’t agree but because what he was saying was part of the problem he was decrying. He couldn’t see that the protests had been prompted by the racism he was expressing. In fact, he didn’t categorise his views as racist at all, which means the problem embeds itself deeper like a flesh-eating virus that only stops when it reaches bone.
I said what I thought, which was that you can’t generalise an entire race. I added that black people have been encountering this hatred for millennia, in a way that white people will never understand because we will not be overlooked for a job or pulled over because of our skin colour.
In the past, I might have been less forceful. Stayed silent, rolling my eyes and letting it slide because he wasn’t going to shift his perspective, was he? But times have changed. I have changed.
Much has been written about the performative nature of anti-racism posts on social media. After the horrifying killing of George Floyd in America by a police officer, and the litany of other deaths that preceded it – including, but not limited to, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and, if you want to go back even further, Stephen Lawrence in the UK – it felt as if a lot of well-meaning white people (myself included) weren’t sure what to do. So we put black squares on Instagram, used the appropriate hashtags and shared illustrated portraits of the deceased.
We were rightly called out and told that being seen to do the right thing was not the same as doing it. Confronting someone and their indefensible views is not pleasant. But allowing them to go unchallenged while posting a black square on Instagram is a far uglier truth to confront.
As I realised that day, important actions are often ones that make you disliked in private, not the ones that get likes on social media.
Of course, my single interaction with that man was never going to end global prejudice (if only). But at the very least, I hope it made him think as he chewed on his tepid hotdog.
This week I’m…
Booking tickets for The Fantastical Festival of Furlough on 31 August. With so many festivals being cancelled, this virtual one is the perfect solution.
Screening my face with Caudalie SPF50 Anti-wrinkle Suncare: hydrating and smooth to apply, made from natural ingredients. Plus it smells great.
Reading Here Is The Beehive by Sarah Crossan, a riveting tale of infidelity and obsession told in verse form. Perfect for the staycation sunlounger.