Donald Trump, a conservative 72-year-old American businessman, has said some things that have stretched the limits of credulity in his career. Here’s one of his latest, regarding Omarosa Manigault Newman’s claim that she has a tape of him saying the n-word: “I don’t have that word in my vocabulary, and never have.”
Now, to be clear: I do not know if this tape exists. I have no evidence that is not available in the mainstream news. I am not claiming that Trump used that word in a conversation that Manigault Newman recorded.
But I simply don’t believe that a conservative 72-year-old American businessman who has a documented history of mistreating people of color, including recently questioning the intelligence of Maxine Waters, LeBron James, and Don Lemon, has never in his life uttered that word.
It simply stretches the limits of credulity well beyond the snapping point.
My father was a liberal United Methodist minister who was committed to bridging barriers. He devoted long periods of his life to mission work in Liberia and Haiti. And he used the word, casually and as an insult, in front of his children.
My friends admit that, in the past, they’ve used the word. In response to my use of “the n-word” within the last year, a white associate casually responded, “Oh, you mean…” then used the word.
Twice this August, I’ve posted about the word on my Facebook wall, where my readers are mostly liberal, and where I’m firmly against racist sentiments, and I’ve gotten white people, people whose commitment to racial equality I do not question, arguing about, “Well, maybe it’s not so bad in [some context or other].”
If this is how white liberals behave, I truly have no ability to believe that someone of Donald Trump’s status and background doesn’t “have that word in my vocabulary, and never have.”
My frustration is that it’s difficult to proceed with getting rid of our cultural heritage of racial discrimination if we can’t even be honest about having used it. We need to be able to stare this truth down, we need to be able to be uncomfortable in our own past misdeeds.
How have I used the word?
When I was a graduate student in linguistics, I convinced myself that any word, no matter how loathsome, can be referenced analytically. Surely the cold eye of the scientist, I reasoned, is immune from acting in bigotry and microaggressions. But this is the voice of privilege. Sociologists and linguists of relatively affluent and powerful European heritage consistently gaze from a place of privilege. It is something that each researcher must address and navigate on their own, but to casually say, “I can use that word because I mean absolutely nothing by it” is culturally dishonest.
When I was starting out as a teacher, as a White Savior, I used the word to explain why the word shouldn’t be used. This is like firing a gun to show why firing a gun is dangerous: You might well make your point, but you cause damage in so doing.
When I was the sort of self-entitled white man who complained of reverse racism, I used the word to criticize words like “cracker” and “honky”… why was it fair for those words to be tossed around, when I couldn’t use THAT word?
I have sung along with the word. White men Marilyn Manson (“Irresponsible Hate Anthem”) and Elvis Costello (“Oliver’s Army”) use the word, after all. And black musical artists use it freely. If I’m singing along, goes the argument, I’m not really using the word. I’m echoing someone else.
Likewise, readers know that books like Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” or Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” (both white authors), as well as many books by black authors (including last year’s much-lauded “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas) use it. Heck, it was in the original title of Agatha Christie’s novel “And Then There Were None.” Surely, white students can read it if it comes up in a book, right? (Wrong.)
And yes, I’m ashamed to admit that as a younger man, I used the word in anger and as a part of racist humor. I’m not proud of that. I am truly sorry for that.
As I’ve developed my perspectives, I’ve tried nuance and argumentation to explain why it’s okay here but not there. I’ve since developed a much simpler rule: I’m white. I never use it. Never. Not ever.
The word was such a part of my childhood, it took me a long time to unpeel it. My father complained that a late contractor was running on “n***** time.” When we asked our father to do something, he said he wasn’t our “n***** slave.” The casual racism that was embedded in its casual use was absorbed into my psyche.
This is why I simply don’t believe that Trump, or any other white American his age, has never used the word. “Never” is a long time. In Trump’s case, it’s over 70 years.
Even White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders doesn’t seem to entirely believe him. Usually, she toes the line and echoes whatever he says. In this case, though, she says she hasn’t heard him say the word, but can’t guarantee that he’s never said it.
It seems strange that Trump would dig his heels in so much about this accusation. He is on tape spewing misogynistic comments. He started his campaign by characterizing undocumented Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug dealers. He apparently has little hesitation with spewing all manner of bile towards his enemies.
But the idea that he has ever said a word that white people rattled off casually throughout my childhood? “NEVER!”
Bill Maher said it just last year, and his career survived. Unlike Trump, who’s accused of having said it years ago in a private conversation, Maher said it on live TV.
Maher, though, also owned up to it. He admitted to the error. He spoke with people of color, in a voice of humility and remorse. He listened to their pain. It wasn’t perfect, but it was something.
It’s time for the rest of us to own up to it, as well. We have made mistakes. We have learned. We’ll do better.