Niggas, Homos and White Boys: Lessons from a Weekend in the Woods

by Dax-Devlon Ross

This past weekend I took a group of thirty-five young men upstate for a retreat. We did the standard team-building exercises: wall climbs, low ropes, hiking through the woods. I-Pods were banned outside of the cabins. The television in the common area had a DVD player but no reception. We were there to be amongst each other, to escape the clamor of the city and all of its accompanying characteristics. I had no delusions about the transformative potential of a two-day outdoor adventure – two days barely ruffles the stagnant ocean of ingrained behavior, can hardly be expected to reverse the current of complacency. I knew their conversations with one another would still be steeped in inner-city idioms. The “N” word was going to flow as freely from their tongues Upstate as it does in the hallways at school. “No homo,” the street slang of the minute, was going to bracket practically every remark the boys made to one another that could even remotely be construed as “gay.” Witness an example: “Son, no homo, your sneakers is hot.”

For me it would’ve been enough if they’d gotten a break from the block. If I have an opportunity to talk to them about their future, to share some part of myself that they didn’t know existed, to encourage them to try something they don’t think they can accomplish, then I’m generally satisfied. But something happened Saturday night, something I couldn’t have predicted or orchestrated. First a little background. On Friday night a kitchen knife fell out of the pocket of one of the young men while we were playing a game in the gym. At first he denied ownership but after a phone call home it was discovered that one of the family cutlery was in fact missing. Needless to say the youngster was on the first train back to New York the next morning. The next day — Saturday — saw a fight nearly break out between two close friends during one of the activities. Although no punches were thrown, slurs – including a barrage of “nigga” thises and “nigga” thats were hurled back and forth. Saturday afternoon we – the other adult leaders and I — sat down with a handful of the members and had a talk with them. We made it clear that we were severely disappointed by the entire group’s behavior and that it was up to them to grow up.

Later that evening a message was sent to us by way of one of the young men that we– the adults that is– were to remain in our room until summoned. They were having a meeting, a private meeting, one we weren’t invited to. We looked at each other with wonder and waited. An hour passed, an hour complete with clapping and cheering, and prolonged hushes. We respectfully stayed put, our curiosity building with each gravely wave of “Uh-huhs,” and every reverberating chorus of “yeses” that slipped beneath the cracks of the door. Finally, after nearly ninety minutes, a knock came.

“We’re ready,” said the voice on the other side of the door.

All thirty plus of them were seated in a circle when we walked into the common area. All of them were unimpeachably silent. They nodded at us, their faces betraying not even the slightest hint of irony. This was serious business. We joined the circle and waited for the proceedings to begin.

“There’s something we would all like to say to you,” one of the group leaders said.

And so it began. Over the course of the next thirty minutes every single person in the group – every knucklehead, roughneck, gangsta, and thug – stepped forward and testified. After opening with “I want to apologize,” they each bore witness to their individual shortcomings and pledged to do better. They were sorry for using the “N” word, for excessively using profanity, for making insensitive remarks about homosexuals. Over and over again young men ages 15 to 19 said they knew better, said they had to push themselves to be better. It was hard, they said, hard to change their ways because so much of what came out of their mouths just wasn’t thought about. Hard because they were lazy. Hard because they’d grown accustomed to their mediocrity. They’d been using the “N” word so long that it was as much a part of their vocabulary as their own names. It never crossed their minds that “no homo” was an insensitive and belittling affront to gays.

Quite frankly, I was unnerved during the meeting. I found myself waiting for the bottom to drop out, expecting the delicate balanced they had achieved on their own to be disrupted by a bone-headed remark. I can’t explain the sense of relief I felt after they’d all spoken their peace and pledged to take their lives to the “next level in every aspect.”

I learned a lot just by listening to them. I learned that as much as I thought I believed in this generation, I had never really believed that I would see the fruits of that belief. I also learned that what these young men are missing in their lives are opportunities to organize and lead themselves in a meaningful way. I can’t take any credit for what came out of them. I might’ve provided the space for it to happen, but what they did with that space was totally of their own accord. They took it upon themselves to have a meeting. They pledged to work toward change. They weren’t responding to a city council’s moratorium on the use of the “N” word or race leader’s call for consciousness. This was an organic expression of solidarity, a democratically organized meeting of the minds.

A number of authors, educators and legislators have offered worthy opinions on the “N” word issue. They’ve suggested that if kids knew more about their history they’d use it less, that if the music they listened to was purged of the word they would in turn lose interest in it as well, that if the artists who use it were condemned, young people would understand that it’s intolerable. This top-down approach to reform is doomed, though. Not only does it ignore the voice of those in whose name these reforms are being called for and fuel their rage against those who claim to speak for them, it fails to acknowledge the disconnect between the world we live in and the world we want to believe we live in— a pivotal factor the depths of which didn’t fully crystallize for me until Sunday morning when we were having our final wrap-up meeting and again we were all gathered in a circle in the common area.

Again, one of the leaders was leading the discussion We gave him a list of questions and he chose which ones he wanted to ask. When he got to the questions that asked the group what they had learned and who they had they had learned more about, their responses blind-sided me a second time in less than twelve hours. Practically every member of the group pointed to one member in particular and said something like, “I learned that Evan is a pretty cool” or “I was surprised the find out that Evan knew so much about music” or “I thought Evan was going to be wack” or “I never thought I could get along with someone like Evan.

Who is Evan you ask? Evan was the only Caucasian kid on the trip with us or “White boy” as he was affectionately dubbed. Evan is a special kid. He’s bright, confident, charismatic, good-looking and pleasant to be around. He’s got a sense of humor, a swagger, a strength. I’m certain that the group’s unequivocal embrace of Evan has as much to do with who he is as a person as it does with him being willing to be the super-minority among a group of black and Latino boys. However, neither of those factors fully accounts for why Evan’s was the name on the tip of everyone’s tongue. That honor belongs to the segregated nature of America’s social relations. For most of the young men Evan was the first white peer they’d ever gotten to know well enough to call their friend. My own childhood had been the model of integration. By the time I was their age I’d lived in an integrated neighborhood all of my life, gone to integrated schools all of my life, and played on integrated sports teams since I’d started playing sports. It wasn’t until I was the age most of the group members are now that my white friends and I started to go our separate ways. Our interests diverged. We liked different music, different girls. We were maturing and looking for our identities so they went in search of their whiteness and I went in search of my blackness. The seed had been planted, though. I knew them and they knew me and one day after the suet settled, as I’ve since discovered, we’d know each other again.

Listening to so many of these young men single out Evan it occurred to me that even in 2007 most of the members in my group had little if any contact with the white world outside of their teachers and the people they stood next to on trains. Evan is an oddity to them, a white peer who would step into their world without reservation. Typically, it’s the other way around. Usually, they are the ones stepping into the “white” world, be it school or work. They are the ones being told that in order to achieve something they have to leave their familiar worlds and enter what they perceive as the white world. Evan became “mad cool” to them because he was willing to transgress that boundary line. In doing so he acknowledged the validity of their world and world view, something probably no other white peer they’ve encountered has ever done.

Despite popular culture’s best efforts to paint ours as a pluralistic society triumphantly overcoming the vestiges of a shameful past, the lives these young men lead reveal how far off that ideal remains. They still lead largely segregated lives. They may travel downtown for school, but they still live in low-income neighborhoods that are filled with people who look like them. Compounding problems, statistically speaking, their white peers have either abandoned the public school system or moved out of the city. Jonathon Kozol has written extensively about this latest “white flight” epidemic as well as the general backsliding of Brown v. Board of Education in recent years. In a 2005 Harper’s essay he laid down the raw facts of inner city education:

In Chicago, by the academic year 2002-2003, 87 percent of public-school enrollment was black or Hispanic; less than 10 percent of children in the schools were white. In Washington, D.C., 94 percent of children were black or Hispanic; less than 5 percent were white. In St. Louis, 82 percent of the student population were black or Hispanic; in Philadelphia and Cleveland, 79 percent; in Los Angeles, 84 percent, in Detroit, 96 percent; in Baltimore, 89 percent. In New York City, nearly three quarters of the students were black or Hispanic.

What’s interesting and unsettling to me is how the resurgence of the “N” word in the last decade parallels the re-segregation taking place in cities, New York in particular. Is this mere coincidence? Or is there an explanation? Is it possible that the re-segregation process exacts a heavy psychological toll on inner city kids? Kozol seems to think so. In the same Harper’s essay he tells readers about a letter he received from a third grader in the Bronx. The young writer told him about all of the things she didn’t have as opposed to all of the things he had. At the end of the letter the girl asked for his help to improve her school. In a very real sense the book he later wrote, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, was his offering to the little girl. But even beneath the deep-rooted injustice that this little girl’s plea unearths lies an even deeper problem: she realizes something isn’t right. She might not know what a budget sheet is, but she’s already aware that the money spent for her education isn’t the same as the money spent for a child in Westchester County.

This little girl’s awareness of her difference, her sense at eight that she’s been shortchanged, is inexorably tied to the quality of “otherness” that is implicit in the term “nigger?”After all, what has the “N” word always been if not a way to identify the “other,” to put them in their place? The only real difference now is that the “others” have taken to identifying themselves as such, putting themselves in “their” place, calling themselves “niggas.”

I’ve heard arguments aplenty about the negative energy flowing from the “N”-word and about it psychic effects on it’s users. I agree with these observations. At the same time, they miss a related but separate point, which is that young people tell us about who we are and where we are when adults won’t. Writes Kozol,

Perhaps most damaging to any serious effort to address racial segregation openly is the refusal of most of the major arbiters of culture in our northern cities to confront or even clearly name an obvious reality they would have castigated with a passionate determination in another section of the nation fifty years before—and which, moreover, they still castigate today in retrospective writings that assign it to a comfortably distant and allegedly concluded era of the past.

But while these “arbiters of culture” are reluctant to face the realities of the 21st Century American city, inner city kids abide by a different code of ethics, namely that of calling things as they see them. They pride themselves on being frank, hang their hats on keeping it real, even if reality isn’t pleasant. Recognizing the validity of their opinion — that they aren’t part of the mainstream but are outsiders, others, niggers — doesn’t and shouldn’t mean that we accept the status quo. It doesn’t mean that we shrug our shoulders and say we tried to show them a better way. It means we address the root of the problem — the patterns of segregation that limit meaningful social interaction between races, and delegate status on a sliding scale based on race — as well as the problem — the uses and abuses of a dispiriting term with a painful past to self-identify — together.