Casual Conversations That Include The Word ‘N****r’

“Oh, you’re American! You don’t say that, huh?”

Time To Read: 6 mins | December 19, 2016

We were drinking too much in a too-loud bar in Antigua, Guatemala. There was a traditional American bluegrass band playing in a corner (don’t ask me why) and the guy sitting next to me, whom I’d befriended over a mutual love of Luna Lovegood (don’t ask me how), was Facetiming his friend in Guatemala City.

In a break between songs, I heard the friend mention she wanted to go out for a cocktail. Well, I like cocktails, and I was going to be in Guatemala City the following night and had no plans as of yet, so I leaned over and yelled into his phone “TAKE ME WITH YOU!”

She agreed, once her hearing recovered, and we made plans to meet the following night. While this was under no auspices a date, I still feel there’s a lesson to be learned here. Something about brute force being more important than creativity. Just shout at them until they agree to hang out with you?

Anyways, we met the following evening. The girl was very beautiful, which I hadn’t picked up on in the ninety-second Facetime exchange, and also extremely terrible at life, which I’d also missed on the phone. After ordering a dry martini, she proceeded to offer nothing more than one word answers for two hours straight. On the off chance I did weasel a story out of her, something longer than two sentences, there was never a follow-up question on her end. Just, “Here’s something I did once that’s not at all interesting. *tiny chuckle*, *silence*.” On top of that, she was forthcoming and proud of her financial situation: at twenty-seven years old, she’d never worked a day in her life, as her well-to-do father gave her everything she needed to globetrot the world. Not that she could tell any interesting stories about the things she seen and done.

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In the short term, I can usually find the something to like in anyone, but true story: this poor thing had no redeeming qualities except for her cheekbones and her drink order.

Halfway through the doldrums, after I’d given up on manners and started ordering whiskeys at a much faster rate, the conversation switched to drinking games. She’d actually managed to spit out a half-interesting two sentence anecdote about living in Holland, and as a follow-up I told the story of my first drinking experience with my Dutch high school girlfriend. Something about beer pong — nothing wildly amusing or entertaining, but for the first time in a very long hour, the conversation had momentum.

As I went back to my Maker’s, she seized on the game theme. Her story started by describing a birthday party in Holland, for the child of a family she was staying with some years back. I remember being less impressed by the actual details than by her newfound ability to converse. Despite all previous evidence, Ms. Boring von Spoiled of Guatemala City was fleshing out a full story like a normal, EII human (my mother taught her children to be ‘Engaged, Interested, and Interesting’ in conversation). I remember momentarily thinking that she’s actually warming up to me or, more likely, that martini’s finally kicking in.

It was neither.

She described how she and her host brother ran away from the children’s party to find something to drink. The discovered a bottle of tequila and, before heading back to the festivities, decided to throw back a few shots.

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“So we turned on the TV and started playing ‘Stop on the N****r’,” she said as casually as you’d mention a game of thumb wars.

It took me a full seven seconds to interrupt her. She kept telling the story, while I focused really, really hard on what I thought I’d just heard. There’s no way she could have just said that, not seriously. I started going through other possibilities –jigger, digger, Winnie the Pooh’s friend Tigger – before finally stopping her.

“Hold on — what did you say the game was called?”

“’Stop on the N****r.’” Then she figured it out: “Oh, you’re American! You don’t say n****r.”

“Love, I don’t think anyone does anymore.”

She laughed while I looked over my shoulder. Her explanation was that it’s common in Holland to drop n-bombs, and that her game, which involved rolling a die, scrolling as many channels up or down, then taking a shot for every black person on the screen (“You really don’t want to land on Nat Geo!”) was totally normal.

American race relations are obviously terribly tense at the moment, especially given years of questionable police shootings and the well publicized #BLM movement. As a middle-class straight white male (meaning, in no way a minority) who’s trying not to insult anyone by mistake, there’s an ever-present fear of making a misstep with what you say or do. I wish there wasn’t. I wish I were 100% confident all the time about what I could and couldn’t say to different groups of people. But I’m not, so I constantly err on the side of caution, and anyone pushing the boundary of what my experience deems polite causes uncomfortable feelings deep down in my gut – half because I think you might be wrong, and half because I’m embarrassed that I don’t know. Such is the result of a society too scared to have an open conversation.

So I’m not even an expert on my own country’s etiquette, and I know the square root of nil about common Dutch verbiage. But I do know that this Guatemalan chick was a shithead. If the game weren’t enough, even if she wanted to explain away the title and word choice as cultural differences, that joyful little comment about Nat Geo was enough to condemn. This was no great loss since, gorgeous or not, I’d decided she was terrible over an hour ago. In fact, it served as validation of my taste.

Thing is, now I wanted to know if she was right, if Holland is simply more lax tossing around the n-word. After escaping that night – her asking “Are you in town tomorrow?,” and my thankfully true response, “Nope!” – I spent some time on the Google machine, and it indeed looks like n-bombs are more common in the Netherlands.

Some point out that what most people are really saying is ‘negger’, which translates closer to ‘negro’, but still, there’ve been two highly-publicized scandals where Dutch publications have used ‘n****r’ in a headline in recent years. One, back in 2011, involved labeling Rihanna as a ‘N***aBitch’. RiRi flipped shit on the magazine, but most Dutch commenters supported the mag at the time and told everyone in the States, in not so many words, to stop being pansies.

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I’m all for the anti-politically correct argument. I champion this cause often – my people need to grow their skins back.

But like I said earlier, I’m also probably overly cautious about not creating offense. And had you asked me a week ago, I wouldn’t have known a major democratic European society still casually tossed around a word that makes 330 million Americans uncomfortable.

So then, like most actions that ride the knife-edge of appropriateness, intention becomes important. Is the meaning behind it cruel, or in good spirit?

In at least the case of one horrendous boring evil spoiled Guatemalan villainess, it was cruel. Of that, and only that, am I sure.

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photo: this little scaly bastard decided to pose like a conquering hero for a full five minutes. isla mujeres, mexico

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Malcolm Freberg
Malcolm Freberg
American writer living permanently on the road. Believes rye whiskey is superior to bourbon, Belle is the best Disney princess, and that selfie sticks should be snapped in half on sight. Hosted a travel documentary for AOL & played Survivor a few times.
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Stories from abroad by Malcolm Freberg. All the joy and scares and barely believable nonsense you can find after stepping out your front door, and some other written work besides. Gratuitous drinking mentions throughout.
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