Sweet Home Alabama: Where the N Word Shines Right Through

By Harleigh Bean

To be quite honest, a part of me believes that I should view my experience at Washington and Lee University with an immense amount of pride due to what I was able to accomplish. I, a young, middle-class, black woman, seemingly gained entry, infiltrated the inner circles of W&L society, and fit right in. I was accepted into a “top-tier” sorority, played on one of the most socially relevant sports teams, and participated in many sought after extracurricular activities. Too an extent, this was true. However, a larger, more significant, side of me has come to terms with the reality of my situation: no amount of perceived social clout—i.e. the whole sorority, lacrosse team, extracurricular involvement trifecta— protected me from the constant reminder that I did not actually fit in with the general W&L population. In my everyday life, these constant reminders manifested as microaggressions.

For those of you unaware or not “woke,” Merriam-Webster defines a microaggression as “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority.)” While I could sit here and provide a detailed description of every microaggression I experienced at W&L, I’ve compiled a list of the most common and most personally draining:

1. It was quite common for members of the W&L community to “mistake me” for one of the other black women on campus. In a particularly peculiar case a woman literally walked into my politics class, unannounced and uninvited, to ask if the student ID she’d recently found was mine—the young woman on the ID card was lighskinned (I am not), had straight hair (I did not), and more importantly, it was quite obvious that we were not the same person.

2. As a freshman, my formal rush experience was quite unique in that the women in all six houses managed to use the same opening line to start a conversation: “Omg, I love Beyoncé!” While I stan Beyoncé to the moon and back, I don’t need every conversation to revolve around her. There are other ways for black and white people to communicate, I promise.

3. When I decided to enter the sorority world, I frequently faced peers who assumed that whoever I asked to a formal would not want to be my date because he would not be sexually attracted to me—i.e. “I’m not really sure he’s into that but I guess it doesn’t hurt to ask.” Because I was seen as equivalent to “that.”

As previously mentioned, this is not an exhaustive list, however, I feel obligated to mention that I have left one microaggression out of this lineup because I’m reluctant to categorize it as a microaggression in the first place. The most prevalent sort-of-microaggression I experienced at W&L, one that I think my social involvement further enabled, was the free-flowing use of the n word by my fellow, non-black (see: white) “gennies.” Whether I was at a fraternity house, at Kappa Hill, or at the Poles, I could be quite certain that at some point that night I would witness many non-black students scream and sing the n word in tune with their favorite songs with unmatched abandon. Even now, I refuse to enjoy the songs “Caroline” by Anime or “Freaky Friday” by Chris Brown and Lil Dicky due to my experience at W&L. It was not okay then and it still is not okay now.

In all honesty, it is actually quite more than “not okay.” When non-black people use the n word, whether in everyday speech or rapping along to their favorite trap song, it is a symbol of immense privilege, ignorance, and complete disregard of the black experience in the country.

It is for these reasons that I am reluctant to dub white students using the n word as a microaggression. I am not convinced that the non-black students at W&L, for all their academic accomplishments, can be let off the hook by saying that using a racial slur is “subtle” or “unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude,” as Merriam-Webster suggests. A racial slur is a racial slur. Point blank period. As a society, we can blanche at proud white supremacists calling black people racial epithets, yet this phenomenon of white kids signing the n word because “it’s just in a song” remains unchecked.

At this point in this essay, it would make sense that I offer some revolutionary solution to this problem. In my opinion, Washington and Lee University itself has taken to facing these issues by purporting that their commitment to increasing the number of diverse students will absolve these issues because increased exposure to black people will encourage non-black students to be more socially conscious, right? Wrong. Seeing as how the percentage of ethnic and racial minority students enrolled at W&L steadily decreased during the majority of my time at W&L, I reject this solution. Instead, I would like to address all of you who need to hear this message—aka the non-black “gennies” who were #triggered by my recount of my W&L experience, who believe that it is “just a word,” or that I am overreacting.

It is never acceptable for you to use a racial slur.

The n word is not yours to use.

Saying the n word is a blatant act of aggression.

If you are upset about not being able to claim this one word in the English language, I would advise you to consult your ancestors.

Didi Pace