SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2002        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Kimberly Phillips

One Word Can Last a Lifetime

It was the summer before my eighth-grade year, my mothers illness had gotten worse, and we had to move from our cozy middle class cul-de-sac neighborhood to an apartment complex on the West Side of Phoenix.  As my mothers illness got worse the neighborhood in which we lived also got worse. This complex was not considered the ghetto but it was not the best place for a young kid to be either.  When I arrived the first day I instantly made friends with several of the children who lived there including two black children, Michael and Kyle, I realize now that these were my first black friends.
It was a smoldering summer, it was as if the heat was rising from the ground up, but children in Phoenix must be born with a special cooling system because we would play outside from sunrise to sunset.  On one of these miserable summer days I was walking with my new friend Michael through the apartment complex. Although hundreds of people lived in my complex and the complex next door, it was like a tranquil ghost town as all the adults hid from the heat in their air-conditioned apartments.

As we were walking we heard someone yelling, Mike. Mike Hey Mike I looked at Michael and he just looked down and kept walking.  He must have seen me turn around when he decided to finally look at who was calling him, we saw a boy running toward us, he looked at Michael and then he looked me up and down and exclaimed, What are you looking at?  Then he turned back to my friend and asked, Who the hell is this honkey bitch?  I had never been called a honkey before I understood what it meant from the movies I watched but I had never heard it directed towards me.  Michael replied by saying, This is my friend Kimberly, she just moved in.  Then he turned to me and motioned for us to leave.  As we were walking away the boy kept yelling, Dont walk away from me bitch, cracker why dont you go pick my cotton!  After we got to my apartment I asked him who that was and why he called me those things, Michael explained by saying, That was just Keir, dont worry about him hes stupid.  However, that explanation did not satisfy my questions, I couldnt believe that someone could hate me so much when I never did anything to them.  I just wanted to get away; not only from Keir and those hateful words, but also for some reason I had to get away from Michael too.

 So, the next day I was at my friend Danielles house looking for an explanation. She was a white girl and had lived in the apartments next door for a long time. As we were sitting around I told her what had happened the previous afternoon.  She replied Oh god, I hate Keir hes such a nigger!  I was stunned. I had never heard that word used in that context before, I replied by saying, My Mom said that I should never call black people that.  Danielle replied by saying, Shes right you shouldnt call all black people that, but there is a difference between black people and niggers.  I could not find it in myself to blame Michael for what had happened to me, so when she told me not all black people are niggers it just made sense.  Now, I did not have to blame all black people, but only those who acted like Keir, and more importantly I had a word that I could attribute to this behavior.

 In reflection I can see how this incident influenced the rest of my life.  As I grew so did the diversity of my peer group, although I had more black friends I still believed that there were two types of black people, those I called my friends and those I could call niggers.  I remember for years, when people would talk about Keir I would mimic Danielle and say, I hate that nigger.  Reactions I received from other people were similar to my own, but after I explained myself it seemed they too understood.  It stemmed from there, and instead of using this word to describe just Keir, I used it to start describing all black people who shared his same negative attributes.  I still felt justified in using this term and referring to myself as a non-racist.   As I got older and started dating, I noticed the difference in my dad if I was dating a white male or a black one.  I would constantly accuse him of being a bigot and telling him he needed to open his mind, but I too was a racist.

 I never directly saw the effects of my words, nor did anyone I hung around with think differently.  This idea between black and nigger came crashing down when I accidentally used the term in front of my mother.  She had only spanked me once as a little kid and I had never seen her raise her hand at me before, but I was sure I would get smacked.  After she calmed down, she asked why I used this word when I did and I explained my acquired knowledge.  She looked at me as if I was crazy.  She than started to explain the history behind the word nigger, than she told me why nobody no matter what they did to me deserves to be called that, and by using this word I sank down to their level, which I am above.

 I understand now that if I would have just gone to her in the first place my life could have been different.  I think my mom would have found another way for me to cope with hearing those awful words than to blame an entire culture.  The thing I most regret is letting Keir affect me so much, I cannot believe I let his words lead in a downward spiral in which my words could have had the same effect on someone else.

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