The First Time I the Heard N Word Employed

As far as words go, the n-word is likely one of the most offensive in the world. Right up there with the c-word employed while referring to a woman. Although the c-word seems more acceptable across the pond in ol’ England. That’s probably why when I heard a black person called the n-word on an airplane the other day I was shocked. It is more a reflection of the sheltered existence I have had perhaps but it was quite jarring to me. I have heard black people use that word among themselves, I’ve heard it on screen and in hip-hop lyrics but never to a black person’s face in real life. Not that I can recall anyways.  I don’t suppose to know what some black folk mean when they say using the word among themselves takes the power out of it and whatnot and I certainly don’t pretend to know whether is is right or wrong that some black folk choose to use it among themselves. What I do know is that I can’t imagine how the woman it was used against felt. But then, it is quite likely that wasn’t the first time someone had called her a “fucking n***** bitch.” Now, what outrage this woman could have possibly perpetrated to be called such an offensive epithet you might ask. And that is a valid question. So allow me to explain.

This has happened to me before. I’ve ponied up the ten or fifteen dollars for in flight internet access and have had darned the thing not work. In fact the two trips right after I had signed up for the monthly plan (forty dollars per month no less) from one of the providers on a specific airline, the internet access didn’t work. The first time I called the flight attendant over to complain she simply said “We’ve had this problem all day today. We’ve complained but they haven’t fixed it.” That was that. She said she was sorry about the inconvenience, I said it wasn’t her fault and I resigned myself to the outrage of having no internet access, paraphrasing the comedian Louis CK,  “while flying thirty thousand feet above sea level sitting in a comfortable chair” for a whole three hours. The poor choice for the source of my quote is not lost one me but that’s the most appropriate one I can think of. I don’t remember what happened the second time but it wasn’t anything eventful or worth remembering evidently. I canceled my subscription before the next billing cycle and moved on. I wish I could say that I have conducted myself this rationally, not having been a donkey’s ass every time in every frustrating customer service situation but I would be lying if I did.

I relate this story because this is exactly what happened last week, and coincidentally, it happened on a flight to the City of Angels like it had with me on those two occasions. This time the outrage was perpetrated against a man in a #23 Lakers jersey, apparently one so excited about LeBron’s arrival in Los Angeles that he couldn’t wait until the season began to buy the jersey. How the man’s sartorial sense, or the lack of it, has to do with any of this I do not know. But I do know this: Nobody wants to sit next to a man in a freaking basketball jersey on a cross country flight with nothing underneath showing all his disgusting armpit hair to the world. Certainly not with his arms raised above his shoulders behind his head the whole time. The man was frustrated that the internet he had paid for wasn’t working. The flight attendant tried to help him but obviously she wasn’t a technical expert and couldn’t help beyond what she’d been taught. Although she tried more than most. She asked him to make sure he is connected to the Gogo in-flight wireless network. She asked him to open the browser on his phone and go to the Gogo in flight website directly using the browser and a couple of other steps that could have helped.  It is at this point that I heard the flight attendant say “Sir please do not talk to me like that.” The man said something else and the flight attendant went “Sir you are being incredibly rude. I will not be spoken to like that. This is when I heard, clear as day, him saying: “Just leave me alone you fucking n**** bitch.”

I heard it and so had a few others around us but no-one (myself included) said anything to the man or confronted him. To not be impolite I suppose. Just like the time I did not stand up and speak out against overt acts of caste discrimination by my own family members back in India. But this post isn’t about my cowardice. Speaking of not wanting to be impolite, what could possibly be more impolite and outrageous than using the most offensive racial slur against someone, no matter what the provocation, I do not know. What kind of decorum I was trying to maintain, do not ask me. My excuse, like that of many is that I do not quite have the right words and right response in the heat of the moment. I can think at least ten things I could have said after the fact but I find myself tongue tied and unable to respond at that very moment. The flight attendant, rightly outraged by what she heard, brought one of her coworkers and said “I’m not giving that man a single thing to drink or eat on this flight.” She also went on the intercom and spoke with the captain about what happened. A few minutes later another flight attendant came along with a piece of paper and explained something to the man. I presume it was some kind of warning or rebuke. Hopefully one that said he isn’t allowed to fly on any flight operated by that airline henceforth but I am not sure what it was and can only hope that is indeed what transpired. All I know was the man nodded defiantly that he understood what was being explained to him. The flight attendant was a bigger person than I could ever be and asked the man during drink service whether he would like some ice water. The woman was exceedingly polite to everyone else on the flight including myself. I do that myself sometimes. When I am in disagreement or have been outraged by someone’s comment in a gathering I go out of my way to be nicer to everyone else around. Just to prove a point that I’m not the asshole here. Although the flight attendant probably was just nice like that always.

While I was deplaning I had an impulse to stop by and tell her that I thought she was a bigger person than I and that I admired her poise and grace. That if she were ever to complain or otherwise pursue some sort of action as a consequence for this passenger I would do everything I could to be on her side. That here was my phone number and contact information. But I didn’t because I didn’t know how she would react. Or I told myself that anyways. Shoulda. Woulda. Coulda. The story of my life.
You’ve indulged me twice in a day so thank you again.

Lakshman Hariharan
Prosper, TX.

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