SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2011       Personal Memory Ethnographies


Sting of the Baby WASP

It was a huge day for me. I was not only in first grade and feeling like a big boy but my dad thought I was old enough to come into the city (San Francisco, CA) with my mom to go to a fancy lunch in Union Square. This was a very big deal and my mom took me shopping to find a nice outfit for me, my first suit, all black, with a collared shirt and a clip-on bow tie because where we were going had a strict dress code and normally children were not allowed. I was told I was to be on my best behavior for dad to show him what a big boy I was now.

This was the first time I had been over the Golden Gate Bridge and I thought it was funny because it was orange not gold and had no gate just a toll booth! I had never seen skyscrapers before and was totally mesmerized. My dad was an executive for a Fortune 100 company in downtown and had taken the rest of the day off so he was in a very nice suit himself and my mom was all dressed up and excited about going to lunch. We were all so happy!

We drove to Union Square, parked and while walking down the street to the restaurant we passed two gentlemen, superior in darkness of skin, talking and one said the word “Nigger.” This was a name I had never heard before and it set my mind reeling, for Winnie the Pooh was one of my favorite stories and Tigger was my favorite character out of them all. I even had one at home. Maybe, in fact, he did have a brother and he was not the only one! If only there was someway I could buy a Nigger and introduce him to my Tigger so he would not be so lonely! Oh the fun we would have!

After a short walk we arrived and the gilt bronze doors were opened for us as if by magic and not the two men standing behind them. I stepped through them gingerly into a new world. This place, no I should say palace, was not just for whites only, it was only white. White polished to reflection marble floors, white marble walls and columns, impossibly high vaulted white ceiling, white suits for the staff, white flowers for the tables, white linens, everything white, blindingly white, screaming for, longing for, dying for just a drop of color to soothe thirst-cracked lips. As we strolled into the main dining area, stuck off to the sides as if this environment did not know quite what to do with these historically recent arrivals, a few nonwhite faces sat uncomfortably in the glare of our surroundings. The Maître d’ made sure we were seated at our reserved table and then removed our calligraphy nametag. I climbed up into my high backed chair with extra pillow, so I could sit and at least see the table, as dignified as I could figure out to be and was pushed towards the table while my napkin that was so neatly folded just seconds before was placed in my lap by the Maître d’. I felt as if I was in a storybook. I was a prince of privilege.

The elaborate silverware on the table glistened, reflecting all the white in the room to an almost overpowering brilliance. My mom informed that these were real fine silver place settings like we used at home for very special occasions. I thought she was being funny. Of course it was real we were not playing make believe although it almost felt like it. The cut crystal glasses and flower vase caught a stray beam of light and made a momentary rainbow on the white linen of the tablecloth; it seemed to devour it hungrily until it was gone. The air smelled sweet as all the cut flowers in the room, as if by decree, released their fragrance on command giving one final gift as the life slowly waned inside of them. Classical music filtered through the room caressing my ears as it floated by. Everything was perfect. I had never tasted anything like this food in my life; it should not even be called food it deserves its own name it is so amazing, as each course topped the last with sure elegance for my taste buds, punctuated with sorbet to “cleanse my palate between courses,” my mom told me. Fancy ice cream between every part of a meal? I was in heaven. The final course was beyond imagination, a spun sugar basket filled with different candy eggs. Everything on the plate I could eat, all created out of sugar, more magic in white. The executive chef came out to our table, it seemed everybody knew my dad, and said I was a very good eater. I smiled. I heard people around us saying how well behaved and good mannered I was. I hoped my dad thought I was being a good boy!

I had in fact behaved so well at lunch that before we were done my dad told me we could go to FAO Schwarz (a huge multistory toy store we had passed driving to lunch) before we went home and I could pick one thing for being so good. I almost could not contain myself I was so excited. My dad asked what I wanted from the toy store. Over enthusiastically and way too loudly, I said, "I want to buy a Nigger of my own so he can teach me how to jump!” because the brother of Tigger would of course know such things.

I did not understand what happened next. All of the sudden my mom was staring at me with her head slightly cocked to one side, her mouth, opened wider then I had ever seen it, was moving slowly with no words coming out and my dad was staring at my mom intently and they both were very red in the face, I learned later, from embarrassment. Everybody else in the entire restaurant was staring at me. I knew something bad was happening and I became scared because as I looked around the silverware was dropping everywhere, everything had stopped and there was no sound, just silence. Everyone was somehow frozen with weird looks on their faces.

My mom gently clasped my wrist and took me to the bathroom while my dad quickly paid the bill. My mom said I was in big trouble and could never say that word again! She rambled on about where had I heard that word and how I could not see my uncle again until she gave him another stern talking to. “What word,” I asked her? “The one you said you wanted to buy!” I did not understand why and how was I in big trouble for just saying Tigger's brother’s name. The first thing my mom did when we arrived home was to call my uncle.

Ring, ring, ring. Hello, The Love Shack you are speaking to The Handsome. Calm down sis! I cannot understand what you are saying. Slow down. What is wrong? I did not know they made suits that small! I bet my nephew was the cutest little white boy there, all dressed up. What, I am just kidding. Why are you so mad at me? He said what, where? No way! Hell no, I did not teach him that and he did not hear it from me! Is Terry pissed? That pissed! I know you are embarrassed! Kids just pick stuff up and he is a precocious little shit sometimes. Sorry, yes no more swearing. Yes, ever. What do you want me to do? I cannot say I am sorry for something I did not start! He was going to hear it some time, but I would have given my left nut to have been there to see what happened when he said it there, of all places, and loud enough for everybody in San Fran to hear it! People dropped and broke stuff! Everybody in the whole room looked? You may have to admit even though he looks cute in a suit, with his blue eyes and blond hair, he just may be the world’s tiniest racist! Yes, I think I am funny and you need to calm down or you will have a stroke! Yes, sis I will watch what I say around the mega sponge! Bye, I love you, you know!

Why this event stays with me, almost 30 years later, was the instant change that my use of the word nigger, really an innocuous soft sounding word, caused in my little naive world. I could not have used it at a worse time or place. I never knew how much power a word could have until then and it took me years to understand fully what had happened and why. California was at the forefront of political correctness in the early eighties. Affirmative action was in full swing and the long up hill march to equality was actually being walked around obstacle after obstacle being placed in its path. San Francisco was one of the first cities not to just allow but also actually to take pride in celebrating diversity at the time and I, with one little word, reset years of progress for those who had heard my remark.

Yes, I knew something horrible had happened the instant the word nigger cleared my lips. I just did not connect the two events, me saying nigger and the world stopping. So I did not know I had done it or what it was I had done. I do not think I have ever embarrassed anyone as much as I embarrassed my parents that day. My parents took time to tell me, long before this day, that people may look very different on the outside for many reasons but we are all the same on the inside so for them what came out of my mouth was unfathomable.

The worst part, for me, was the looks on the faces of everybody in the room. At that point I had not worked out what the expressions, on all the white faces, meant but looking back I know them to be genuine disgust upon hearing me say the word nigger; whether in general or just in that public setting I cannot be sure. However, it is the sad almost defeated looks on some of the patrons that were not white that haunts me. They had made it into the alabaster palace not as staff but as actual guests, something not possible even a few years before my utterance, and it was as if I had taken all their hope and dreams that progress had been made and would continue to be made, and showed them that it was all a nasty sham, a hoodwink, a bamboozlement. The sting of that word from me, the baby WASP, was so unexpected yet so familiar it was as if another 100 year flood had hit just years after the last, taking with it, in the receding waters after the initial shock, the spoils of a hard won, now hollow victory.

I cannot take back what I said or change the fact that I know I hurt others with what I said but I have been thinking about this situation for a long time. I have come to the conclusion that the only way to take the sting out of the word is to pull out the stinger entirely. It is time for something completely different. The definition needs to be officially changed to, nigger: one who defiantly meets adversity head on and over comes it. We should have a battleship or destroyer or aircraft carrier named the USS Nigger. One of the highest Medals of Honor for bravery or valor needs to be named the Nigger. Word meanings can be changed and it is about time the most powerful word in the world actually comes to mean powerful and strong.

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