It’s about time we have a serious discussion about one particular wypipo proverb: “If they can say it, why can’t I?”
A white South Carolina police officer has been suspended after he was recorded Saturday repeatedly using the n-word outside of a bar where he was called to enforce a state ordinance put in place due to the pandemic. The officer’s excuse for using the slur multiple times? He heard a Black person say it first.
The Washington Post reports that Columbia, S.C. police Sgt. Chad Walker was called to a bar in the Five Points neighborhood to enforce the governor’s order to stop serving alcohol at 11 p.m. In body camera footage released by the Columbia Police Department on Sunday, Walker can be seen walking through the bar aggressively shouting at people to put down their glasses and leave. As he passed a Black man who was apparently still holding a glass, Walker said, “Sir, if you drink that, you will go to jail.”
The Black guy’s response was mostly inaudible but Walker claims he was called the n-word as the man was responding to being told to leave.
Walker can be heard saying to the Black man, “Your hand was on [the glass], sir. And you’re a little colorblind.” Basically, Walker—who looks and behaves like a Great Value version of Vic Mackey from The Shield—implied that he couldn’t possibly be a nigga because he’s white.
In bodycam footage taken outside the bar, Walker is seen arguing with a masked patron who is simply asking him why he’s talking to people of color like they are “less than human.”
“Those people of color?” Walker asked while pointing in some direction. “You mean the gentleman that just called me a nigger?”
“Are you serious?” the patron asked. Walker then continued repeating the word with the hard R knowing damn well the Black man didn’t say it that way. Another person chimes in asking Walker, “Can you stop saying that word please?”
After the Black man argues that he did not call Walker the n-word, Walker insists that he did and tells him “all you’re doing is calling me ignorant. That’s what that word means.” After being informed that the word is in fact not synonymous with ignorant, Walker is heard arguing, “Actually, if you look in the dictionary, that is what that means.” For the record: No, the Merriam-Webster dictionary—or what Walker condescendingly referred to as “the big thing you open and read”—does not define “nigger” that way.
In the end, Walker’s question was simple and typical: “He can say it to me, but I can’t say it to him?”
Generally, when white people ask why they can’t say any version of the n-word when Black people say it all the time, my answer is simply, “Because you can’t, nigga.” But since writing things happens to be my job, this story presents an opportunity for me to elaborate without feeling like I’m going out of my way to educate white people.
First of all, it needs to be acknowledged that not all Black people are OK with the n-word being used by anyone, including other Black people. I couldn’t count on one hand the number of Black teachers I had growing up who tried to sell us the lie that “nigga” is short for “ignorant” because they knew we didn’t have Google back then and couldn’t immediately refute them. So white people’s argument that they can say it because we say it is based on the false premise that Black people’s use of the word is universally viewed as acceptable.
Secondly, it should be considered that we use the word because it has become a part of Black vernacular. I reject Black people’s explanation that it’s a “term of endearment” when we use it—because it isn’t always. Certainly, “my nigga” is endearing in tone, but that’s not the only way we use it.
After I replayed the bodycam footage several times, I thought I heard the Black guy say, “Damn, nigga” to the officer as he was leaving. (I could be wrong because the video is partially censored plus my ass is getting old.) “Damn, nigga” is a Black-ass expression that can be directed at anyone of any race, sometimes positively, other times not so much. (Honestly, it doesn’t even have to be a person. The other day, I opened the sliding glass door to my patio and then walked right into the screen. At that moment the screen was “Damn, nigga.”)
My point is, more often than not, our use of the n-word is neutral in tone. It’s never neutral when white people say it—no matter the context.
However you feel about Black people saying the n-word, we should all agree that, especially in “today’s climate” (another wypipo proverb that I’m going to go ahead and steal for a second), a white cop has no business using the word or lecturing Black people about our use of it. That’s probably why bystanders can be heard in the video shouting at Walker to “grow up” and “lead by example” and why another officer eventually pulled Walker away from the scene. When it comes down to it, regardless of what the Black man said or didn’t say, it happened as he was following the cop’s orders and leaving the bar. Walker didn’t even have a confrontation to deescalate. He went out of his way to turn a passing comment into a problem.
“Our officers are trained to serve as leaders and to de-escalate confrontations of potentially volatile situations,” Police Chief W.H. Holbrook told the Post. “Although I am embarrassed and disappointed in the Sergeant’s actions, I was encouraged to see a junior officer intervene and remove Walker from the situation, potentially stopping further escalation.”
Holbrook said in a statement that Walker was suspended Sunday.