When to Confront a Stranger: A Question of Authority

by Special Correspondent Nadra Kareem

The odd thing about the word “nigger” for me is that as much debate as I’ve heard about the term, my exposure to it in adulthood is fairly limited. I grew up in the Chicago area in a mostly African American family, but a few of my black relatives, all transplants from the South, insisted on complaining about “no-good niggers” and such, despite the fact that I took issue with their use of the word.

Now, as a grown woman who lives far from family and far from the inner-city (the other place where I’ve often heard the word spoken), I’m most likely to hear “nigger” in a rap song or a film than I am in person. That’s why during a recent visit to a Target in an L.A. neighborhood where the upwardly mobile clientele likely dub the store “Tar-zhay,” I froze when I heard a voice cry out, “It’s over there, nigger!”

After stopping in my tracks, two things struck me: the voice belonged to a female and the female in question was probably not black. I looked around, trying to link the voice to a person and spot anyone else who had overheard, but the sleepwear/underwear section was totally empty. A moment later, though, the owner of the voice surfaced, along with a companion. Both were young, giggly Latinas. When I spotted the girls, I relaxed just a little, figuring that they meant no harm, that they were probably just high school students trying to be “down.” Still, I wanted to tell the girls that they shouldn’t address each other as “nigger.” Instead, I said nothing. Who am I to tell a stranger what she can or cannot say? It didn’t help matters that I had been raised to not make trouble, to mind my own business.

Then, one of the girls approached me to ask a question about bra sizes, and I still said nothing. Everything seemed to happen so quickly, and, as the scene unfolded, I found myself struggling to find the appropriate tack to take. Should I have lectured the girls about how offensive the term was? Should I have told them simply not to use the word in public? Or should I have asked them how they had come to use the word so casually and what the word represented to them? In the end, I remained silent and am now feeling more than a little guilty about being so slow on the uptake that I let a possible teachable moment slip by. My significant other asked me what it would have taken to get me to speak out, and I answered that I probably would have said something had young children or elderly black people been around.

More than a week after my encounter with the girls, I am flooded with questions. Had the two teens been black would I have even contemplated lecturing them, even though I disagree with the use of the word in such a fashion? I don’t belong to the ilk who believes that black people have a “right” to call each other “nigger,” but I know that I would not have had the same reaction had I seen two young black girls address each other as such. Would it have bothered me? Yes, but not enough for me to contemplate confronting them. On the flipside, had the two teens been white, my anger probably would have made me unhesitant to confront them.

In the aftermath of this encounter, I mostly wonder about authority. Do strangers have the authority to “correct” strangers when they’re saying something that’s outright offensive? And how do factors of age, gender, race, etc., factor into this authority?