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AdviceHey, Bonita!

My White Friend Used the N-Word

Hey Bonita,

So I was riding around helping my friend with errands one afternoon when we started talking about Black Lives Matter. I’m Black and was just talking about how overwhelmed I was feeling by everything happening across the country, along with my general stress of being a Black woman in America, using the tendency of white people to describe me as aggressive as an example. Her response really threw me for a loop—my friend, who is unmistakably white, started talking about how people look at her “community” in that way as well. What community? Sicilian Americans. She told me about how Sicilians are typically more “dark skinned” than other Italians because of “cross-breeding with the Moors” and how her family is loud and uses lots of corporal punishment. She then stated that other nationalities refer to Sicilians as “Italian n******s.”  

I was blown away! I told her to never use a racial slur around me again, and reminded her that there is no way that the experience of Sicilians could be compared in any way to that of Black Americans. And does she really think that all Black people are loud and beat their children? I am furious. Should I follow up with her or just ghost her ignorant ass?

Sincerely,

Appalled 

Dear Appalled,

What?! I shouted out loud when I read that, hand to God. Not because I was surprised, but because I had the same experience in undergraduate school with a friend. I went to college in a part of the South that has a large population of Italian Americans, and one of my homies once went on and on about the same thing, even daring to use that same slur in reference to themselves. I only wish I’d been as confident in my response as you were, and I decided to ghost her. But honestly, I regret having done that because it was a teachable moment, and back then I wasn’t so fatigued by racial justice that I was happy to walk a friend through a painful issue for me. The difference, however, is that my friend didn’t also go out of her way to stereotype and insult African Americans, too.

I think it’s important to keep in mind that she meant well and was trying to empathize, though that doesn’t make her use of a racial slur OK. I think she thought that she was invited to the cookout, as they say, and got way the hell ahead of herself. There’s no disputing the othering of Italian immigrants in American society of the late 1800s and early 1900s, and that history must certainly still influence the Italian-American experience to a degree. Sicilians were othered even more so within their community, of course, and it’s perfectly fine for the Sicilian experience and the Black experience to exist alongside each other. One doesn’t have to be better or worse than the other. Your friend’s privilege kept her from seeing how her empathetic statement was actually serving to minimize and silence your own experience. It’s unintentional “whataboutism,” and I mean that—I really don’t think she meant harm, from what you describe here. I’d be interested to know if she apologized or tried to explain herself in any way. I mean, every white person in America must know by now that the N-word is off limits to them, now and forever. That’s the part that makes me scratch my head the most: Where the hell did she get the idea that saying that would be OK? It’s the only part that makes me hesitant to recommend following up, because she could very well accuse you of reverse racism (not a real thing) or get so defensive that you can’t have a productive conversation at all. You know her temperament better than I do, so that’s your call. I’m leaning towards a follow-up here, but I would not judge you for ghosting her. In a perfect world, she’d know that she was in the wrong, and she’d reach out on her own to initiate this conversation. I hope that happens, but you have the right to contact her yourself and explain her transgression to her.

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