(Editor's note: This story contains the use of a racial slur.)
I was never called a "nigger" out loud until I moved to Texas.
It’s not that racism doesn’t exist in the Northeast, where I grew up. It does. But in my New York suburban neighborhood on Long Island, racism was covert. Here, in Austin, it has been far more overt.
To be sure, the N-word was used privately among many white people in New York. And there were incidents in which that word was publicly weaponized against African Americans, particularly in certain white enclaves — such as Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst neighborhood, where Black people weren’t welcome. But generally, it was considered déclassé to blurt such things out in public, especially in mixed company.
Such unspoken rules of conduct don’t exist in Austin, as I found out in 1986 while walking on the campus of the University of Texas. I will never forget because it sent me into culture shock. I was strolling along the Drag, wearing a backpack, when a white pickup truck slowed next to me. Several young white men started yelling, "Nigger, nigger, nigger!" I froze for a moment, then looked around. No other Black people in sight. I stood there, humiliated and frightened, as white passersby stared at me or looked away. No one stopped to offer a kind word. No one yelled back at the white guys in the truck, laughing and yelling as they rolled down Guadalupe.
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It was not an isolated event. It happened in 1988, when I worked as a reporter for the American-Statesman. Dressed in a suit and my Sunday shoes, I went to interview school officials at Westlake High School. As I walked into the main hall, some male students began saying, "Nigger." They weren’t yelling. They were saying the N-word just loud enough for me and their friends to hear. And they were smiling. Looking at the group, I didn’t see any brown faces or friendly gazes. Something shifted beneath me. My stomach tightened. I gathered myself and walked to the office. I got the information and left. Sadly, my complaint about those students wasn’t taken seriously by my editor, who said something like, "They are just stupid rich kids."
The following year, in October 1989, however, the racist behavior of Westlake students had to be taken seriously. The University Interscholastic League put the predominantly white high school on probation for the 1990-91 school year for racist incidents that happened during its homecoming football game against predominantly Black LBJ High School.
A dummy in a football jersey was hung from a tree in front of the campus. Also, a big sign on the visitors’ side read, "Go Home Niggers."
Over the years, I endured many experiences in which I was singled out, excluded, harassed or put down publicly because of my darker skin (including some years as the only African American female reporter in the Texas Capitol Press corps). Later, as an editorial writer and columnist, I got hate email — including calling me the N-word and "jungle bunny." My boss, editorial page editor Arnold Garcia Jr., also got racist emails.
Email offered a safer space for such incidents. If I was to be verbally assaulted, it wasn’t as threatening coming from a computer screen in the privacy of my work area.
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Such experiences aren’t uncommon for African Americans in Austin. Most Black people I know have had similar encounters. But how we process them can be different based on where we grew up and where we live now, says Edmund Gordon, associate professor of African and African diaspora studies at the University of Texas.
Gordon attended integrated schools while growing up in New York during the 1950s and 1960s, though he was well aware of the unwritten taboos. "It was OK to go to school with white students, but their families didn’t want me dating their daughters."
"Racism there was much more covert and institutional," says Gordon, who moved to Austin in 1990.
That was an eye-opener. Gordon said Austin, with its segregated school district and Confederate statues on the grounds of UT and the Capitol, "was a sleepy, Southern town, which, in some sense, still is caught in its racial past."
Virginia A. Brown, assistant professor in the department of population health at UT’s Dell Medical School, said the N-word is an "epithet that preceded being lynched."
She compared it to a Confederate flag on the back of a pickup truck with a gun rack, adding that it can be "a signifier for everyday life of Black people, who are trying just to be (ordinary people)."
"If I go out there, just trying to be, that can put my life at risk," she said. "Ahmaud Arbery was just taking his jog through the neighborhood — just trying to be."
One of the three white men charged with Arbery’s killing called him a "f- - -ing nigger," as he stood over his body.
Brown takes precautions, such as not walking alone in her downtown neighborhood and keeping her guard up in public for the eventuality of being singled out for her color or gender. She recounted the story of a recent event that illustrates the routine racial slights Black people endure, including African American professionals like herself who hold doctorate degrees.
While sitting in the Dell Medical School cafe after closing hours with a white colleague, she was approached by a white woman who was wearing the orange credentials identifying her as medical school employee.
"She approached us and spoke to me, asking me if I could get her some ice," Brown said.
Looking at the woman, Brown responded: "No, I am sorry. I do not work in the cafe."
Brown resumed her conversation as the woman walked away.
"I was just trying to be," Brown said, saying that along with putting on a mask every day to protect herself from the coronavirus pandemic, she suits up with emotional armor to fend off such racial insults.
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My children were "just trying to be" when they were publicly denigrated. As they waited for me one evening in 1992 to pick them up outside what was then the John Henry Faulk Public Library downtown, a green Dillo bus rolled by. White guys started pointing and yelling, "Niggers."
Like so many Black moms and dads, I had to explain to my trauma-stricken children, who were 10 and 11 at the time, why their beautiful brown skin would make them targets throughout their lives.
Don’t think for a moment this is ancient history. Just weeks ago, while riding my bicycle in my North Austin neighborhood, a white man in a cream-colored van sped through a stop sign, veered toward me, lowered his window and shouted, "Get off the road, nigger, or I will run your ass over!"
I froze, not knowing if this was my Arbery moment.
While police officers in other cities are fired for calling us the N-word, in Austin, they can do so with impunity, as Assistant Chief Justin Newsom did in using the N-word to refer to President Barack Obama and former City Council Member Ora Houston. He was allowed to retire with full benefits.
So I cannot tell you which is more harmful — Southern racism or the Northern version. Each delivers its own damage.
But this much I know. Living in Austin, which fiercely advocates for white women, urban farmers, environmentalists, immigrants and animal welfare while denying Black people — by policy, practice and silence — their full humanity is suffocating.