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Niggers, Old and New

Did Sept. 11 Make Being Black Any Different?

By Keith A. Owens | Posted 1/2/2002

So are Arabs the new niggers?

Here's why I'm asking. A few weeks ago I was in this club way out in the Detroit suburbs. As is often the case, my bandmates and I were the only black faces in the whole place. During a break some of us were sitting at a table together, running our mouths about whatever, when this guy walks up with a big smile and invites himself into the conversation. After introducing himself, he says he likes the music. We all smile and tell him thanks. Pretty soon he sits down and we get to talking about this and that, just making conversation.

Then the small talk comes to an end. The guy leans forward just a bit across the table, smile still in place, and asks us this question. He wants to know if we as black folks feel more relieved and less under the gun after the Sept. 11 tragedy because now the pressure is off us and on the Arabs. In other words, are Arabs the new niggers?

I suppose the implied follow-up question was whether or not black folks feel more like full-fledged Americans now that we can all wrap ourselves in the stars and stripes with everyone else. Since the new niggers are in town, we have been promoted up the ladder to more-favored-resident status.

Before I try to tackle that question--because I'm not so sure any of us gave the man a really honest answer that evening--let me deal briefly with my use of the word "nigger." It's not that I don't know the word is loaded. At a couple of newspapers where I used to work it nearly required an act of Congress for the word to be allowed to appear on the page. "Racial slur" was the preferred term. I think that was because the editors figured everyone would know what slur was being referred to and that was good enough. I can understand that, and I know firsthand, as all black people do, how hurtful and rage-inspiring the word can be. But I also know that it doesn't make any sense to run and hide under a table every time a bad word is uttered. The only way to deal with words is to deal with them up close and personal. Besides, nobody has ever called me a racial slur, but I've been called nigger plenty of times by both blacks and whites alike.

Now back to the question. Most people know that black folks were the first ones to be called niggers in America by ignorant whites. More than 200 years later the word still has power, but it has been co-opted by some blacks to use among themselves. There's a school of thought that says when black folks call each other nigger it takes the sting out of it, but not everyone attended that school.

There's another way of thinking that says that the members of whichever racial and/or ethnic group is currently most despised in America are the niggers. When you broaden the scope of the term like that, then just about every immigrant who ever believed the Statue of Liberty really was beckoning to him or her has been a nigger at some time or another. Call it Uncle Sam's initiation fee. However, I think it's safe to say that no other group has had the perverse privilege of being saddled with the term longer than African-Americans. Maybe that's because the word was developed as something special just for us.

Gee.

Anyway, since a particular group of Arabs are responsible for what happened on Sept. 11, they are all now on the receiving end of some pretty rough treatment here in America. In November the Justice Department announced plans to interview 5,000 young male foreigners from the Middle East and countries where terrorists are known to operate. Federal agents were told to work with local and state law-enforcement agencies to find people for questioning. Arab-Americans were "invited" to show up for interviews. Anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment in America has shot up like a fever. To be an Arab in America today is to be under suspicion.

But are Arabs the new niggers?

I remember during Thanksgiving dinner when my brother-in-law, who owns his own construction company, joked about how nice white folks are to him now when he gets on an elevator. White women don't clutch their purses and men want to shake his hand. "They know I'm not going to blow anything up," he said.

In other words, they were no longer worried about him because suddenly he was an American just like them. All it took was a war against another group of dark-skinned people who have issues with America. That my brother-in-law is one of the most respected business people in the city in which he lives never mattered to the folks who only judged him by his skin color. But after the attack, all that mattered was that he wasn't wearing a turban.

If he didn't know any better my brother-in-law would have made the mistake of thinking that he had finally arrived. He was now on the good list. Screw those Arabs. Hell, they don't like black folks anyway. After all this time of being given the nigger treatment, isn't it good to see someone else catch a few licks? And don't they deserve it?

But here's the thing: If the Arabs are the new niggers, then are we crazy enough to believe that America is now a better place to live for the "former niggers"? And who will the next niggers be? Is this how to move ahead in America? Just keep waiting for the next group of despised folks to arrive so the formerly despised can use their necks as a step up toward the American dream? Just how ridiculous is this going to get?

No. The Arabs aren't the new niggers because the former niggers were never niggers to begin with.

Game over. Turn the page.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-area freelance writer and musician. This piece initially appeared in the Detroit alternative newsweekly Metro Times.

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