I have had the honor of teaching Nathaniel Charles for three out of the last four years. Today, he stood in front of his entire senior class and delivered the following speech. Saying that I couldn’t be more proud is not enough. Saying anything is not enough.
This Word is Not Okay
(writes ‘nigger’ on board)
This word is not okay. Do not say this word to me, near me, or about me in any way.
(erases ‘er,’ adds ‘a’)
This word is not an acceptable substitute.
I laugh at the jokes you guys make about Black people. I used to make them too, and we all laughed. But they’re not funny anymore. They haven’t been for a long time. Years. So I stopped making the jokes. But I didn’t stop laughing at them. I kept laughing because I had barely told anyone that it wasn’t funny. I kept laughing because it was my fault, not yours, that these jokes were still being made. I couldn’t expect anyone to just know how I was feeling. So I kept laughing, because . . . what else could I do?
Here’s the thing. If someone asks me to pick up the pencil they dropped, and I say, “I’m not your slave,” there doesn’t need to be an awkward silence. Black people haven’t been the only slaves in the past 14 billion years. React the same way you would if an Indian person had said it. Likewise, if I’m doing you a favor and you pretend to whip me, it can still be an equally funny joke. However, once you add, “It’s funny ‘cause you’re Black,” not only is it no longer funny, but it is outrageously rude and wildly unnecessary.
My favorite part, though, is when people make these jokes around me and then they say, “Oh it’s okay, he’s not even Black.” I can’t help but check myself after someone says that. I have to give them the benefit of the doubt; maybe I turned White or Hispanic without realizing it. Because the thing is, I am Black. I am not African-American, but I am Black Caribbean. I know what you mean when you say that I’m not Black. You’re saying that I’m not a stereotypical Black person. You’re saying that I don’t like rap music, that I’m intellectual, that I haven’t fathered kids that I’ve abandoned or that I don’t know about. But that’s not what makes someone Black, or White, or Asian. You get your skin color and your heritage from your parents. Likes, dislikes, attitudes, and patterns of behavior—all of those are shaped by the world around an individual. Lots of Black people have grown up under unfortunate circumstances and haven’t been able to overcome them, leading to stereotypes we see today. But the same is true for every race. What is it that makes it more likely for the Black man to have stolen your car than the White man?
The truth is that I like fried chicken, I like watermelon, I can’t swim, and I borderline hate dogs. But why does that make you laugh or smile? Millions of people enjoy fried chicken, and they are not all Black people. Those are just four facts about me that have 0% to do with my race. I’m not Black because of those things, and those things aren’t true just because I’m Black. There is no correlation. The only thing that defines a “true Black person” is the color of their skin. That’s it.
I’m not asking for any apologies. I’m just as guilty of it, if not more so, as any person in this room. And I know that I’ll slip up sometimes, same as you. And that’s okay. But we have a month left together, and I didn’t want to go without you knowing how I feel about this. And it’s not solely for my peace of mind, but for your sake as well. You’ll meet people in college of all different races, and you’ll hear thousands of jokes about every person of every color of the rainbow. And maybe the people laughing at themselves aren’t tired of it yet, like I wasn’t freshman year. But I can personally give you a 100% guarantee that it will get really old to them, really quickly.
I’m not a member of a low-income family because I’m Black. I didn’t get into great universities because I’m Black. But the reason I care, why I’m bothering to share any of this with you right now, why it matters to me that you know? It’s because I know how crappy it feels. It’s because I don’t want anyone else to hurt the way I have. When it comes down to it . . . it’s because I’m Black.
— Nathaniel Charles, 2013