The Sunken Place

I posted on Saturday that the NRA Convention was going pretty well at that point. Granted, there wasn’t but a handful of black folks there. I personally encountered about 12 out of 82,000. But, hey, it’s a start. More than I expected. In fact, one of the first black people I saw was Maj Toure from Black Guns Matter. I spoke to him for a bit about dispelling myths in urban communities and opening skeptical minds to causes like the Second Amendment.

As I mentioned in my last segment on the GunBlog VarietyCast, I was a little nervous about attending NRAAM. I mean, I knew no one would beat me up or kick me out, of course. But I did wonder if I would be such a sore thumb that it would feel uncomfortable or awkward.

But folks were generally cordial, polite, dare I say even disarming (no pun intended). Lots of smiles, welcoming gestures, banal niceties, and the like. It was all so very Pleasantville-esque. And when the precious old guy at the Annual Meeting took to the microphone to proclaim that the NRA needs more women and minorities, I breathed a great big sigh of relief, mildly embarrassed that I had avoided this event for so long.

And then…


Someone I know — a white man I’ve grown to like a lot — said the n-word. In my presence. Within direct earshot. On purpose. Knowing full-well that I could hear him. And then he laughed hysterically. Look, Ma, I made a funny!

No, he wasn’t calling me a n*gger. He didn’t direct it at me or at anyone else. He didn’t even mean it as a pejorative. Instead, he was channeling his inner Samuel L. Jackson and quoting some “funny” line from a movie. (Pulp Fiction, maybe? Django? I can’t remember. It doesn’t matter.) Apparently, something had just happened that he analogized to the movie scene, so he saw a perfect opportunity to gin up some laughs with his very best Samuel L. impersonation.

That blood-soaked, lynching-laden, vote-suppressing, freedom-snatching abomination of a word just casually roller-bladed right off his tongue like he was singing his A-B-Cs. And the laughter. The amusement. The banter. He was quite proud of his punchline. It wasn’t until someone else gave a look of disapproval that he turned to me and said some sh*t like, “Oh, sorry, Tiffany. My bad.”


You’re… sorry? Your bad? REALLY?!?

You’re God-damned motherf*cking right it’s your bad. Dude, WTF?!? I should take this pen and stab you in the Adam’s apple right f*cking now. Better yet, how about I kill off everyone in your family who is of no use to me; keep the ones who can bear children, be sex slaves, or do manual labor; clap them in chains and drag them to a different continent; work them like horses until they die of exhaustion or give me a reason to beat them to death; codify my right to do all this sh*t under the very same federal laws, Supreme Court, and Constitution that protect your right to bear arms; come up with a catchy new word to signify aaaaaaaaall that, and then hurl that word in your face. How about that.

And you know what? I’m not sure what pissed me off more: him dropping the n-bomb, or him being utterly oblivious to the fact that following up with a perfunctory, giggle-wrapped apology only made it ten thousand times worse.

When I heard him use that word so freely, I felt like Sarah in the ballroom scene from the movie, Labyrinth, when she realized all the people she thought she had joined in fellowship were actually laughing at her. She realized she was a fool. She had been hoodwinked. Something was very wrong. She wasn’t supposed to be there. All those folks with whom she felt a sense of solidarity — they were all wearing masks. Eventually, she could no longer resist the frantic urge to escape her surroundings, even by destructively crashing right through them if necessary. And all the while, David Bowie sings, “As the World Falls Down.”

I would like to tell you that I courageously confronted this gentleman and gave him a lecture on social proprieties. Instead, I did what Sarah did. I absconded from his presence as fast as I could. I stowed myself away in some offbeat corner and sobbed hysterically. And I mean uncontrollably. Like, that coughing-hyperventilation-and-snot-bubbles kind of bawling. It was not the reaction I expected. At first I thought it was anger. But it wasn’t. It was fear. After dodging the question in so many different facets of my life, hearing the n-word at the NRA Convention left me no choice but to look in the mirror and ask: Am I in the Sunken Place?

If you haven’t seen the movie, Get Out, then (A) shame on you and (B) stop reading this and go see it immediately. You won’t understand the Sunken Place without seeing the movie. And even then, you still might not understand it. I sure didn’t (which might explain why once upon a time in my adolescent ignorance I used the n-word myself). The film’s director, Jordan Peele (of Key and Peele), says the Sunken Place is a perpetual state of being marginalized — reduced to a meme, a caricature, even a prop. It’s the hypnotic “Good Doggie” syndrome, where surface-level nods obscure the underlying existential demotion.

Am I just the agreeable token that people tolerate so they can say they have a black friend? Am I the acceptable Negro? The one who never screams too loudly — who doesn’t mind people saying the n-word? Because, hey, Sam Jackson said it, so it’s cool, right?

As I mentally flailed in the horror of realizing I might very well be sunken, my mind started to wander. My Sunken Place grew wider and wider and wider. I started rethinking past incidents that I had previously brushed off as happenstance. Was I so blinded that I had completely missed their meaning? Had I spent too much time engrossed in the Labrynth fantasy and not enough time internalizing Malcolm X or American History X or 12 Years a Slave?

Saturday at the NRA Convention, I noticed a guy in front of me on the escalator. Dude was all tatted up – head to toe. One tattoo on his arm was a white lightning bolt. I saw it, noticed it, and filed it away as, “Na. Couldn’t be. Don’t be paranoid.” Was I wrong to give him the benefit of the doubt? After all, if my own regular acquaintances could so easily utter the n-word in my presence, is it really so far-fetched that one stranger in a sea of 82,000 gun-loving, states’-rights-promoting, confederate-flag-wearing NRA members just might be sporting the SS insignia?

Another white friend of mine had a running joke with a black mutual friend. She called him “Chocolate Godzilla.” Before this weekend, I might not have thought twice about her calling him that, especially since they were good friends and ribbed each other all the time. But now that I know folks are perfectly willing to blurt out the n-word, should I give comments like that a little more scrutiny?

Another white friend of mine saw the movie Get Out and loved it, which I was happy to hear. But when describing the movie, he said it was “hilarious.” Wait – what? The Sunken Place is no more hilarious than the n-word. Does he not get it? Did he watch that whole film and miss the entire point? Again, any other time, this wouldn’t have bothered me. The movie is partly billed as a “comedy” after all (a designation dripping with as much satire as the film itself). Hell, under different circumstances, if someone had said Get Out was funny, I might have smiled and nodded in jovial acquiescence, as all the sunken people tend to do. But now that I had been traumatized by that f*cking n-word, the thought of Get Out being “hilarious” only made me think, “Jesus. How white. What a white thing to say. Only a white person could watch that movie and declare, oh, how so very funny.”

And that’s probably not fair of me, I know. Maybe none of those folks deserved the judgmental preconceptions I was (ironically) imposing on them. But that word, I swear. That word. It was in my head. It kept impaling me, like some kind of boomerang bullet stuck in a relentless loop. And those hasty preconceptions were the only Kevlar at my disposal.

I had totally geared up to be open-minded at NRAAM. I had loosened up, let down my guard, and begun to allow myself to enjoy the weekend, even despite the fact that only 0.015% of the attendees had black skin. Who cares if there are no black people here, right? I’m with like-minded folks advancing good causes, regardless of race. And then, sledgehammer. That word completely and totally ruined everything. It ruined my whole day. My whole inaugural NRAAM experience. It kept replaying in my mind. Over. And over. And over. And over again. And again. And again. “They smile in your face. But in the end, you’re just a n*gger to them.” I spent hours arguing with myself over that.

Risen Me: You really thought they accepted you, huh? SMH.

Sunken Me: No, no, don’t over-react. He didn’t even mean it like that.

Risen Me: Ha! You’re even more naive than I thought.

Sunken Me: I’m not naive! Just because one guy makes a mistake doesn’t mean you get to paint a whole race with a broad brush. That would make you a racist yourself.

Risen Me: It’s not about painting everybody with a broad brush. It’s not even really about racism. It’s about you not deluding yourself to the point where you’re caught off guard and severely wounded by something that shouldn’t surprise you. You know how you’re always preaching about situational awareness? Yeah, well this situation caught you woefully unawares. 

And when I couldn’t resolve this matter with myself, I wasn’t sure where to go for help. My white friends and gun buddies might say, “oh, he didn’t mean any harm, it was a joke, and he apologized,” which would make my head explode. My black friends and gun-shy buddies might say, “well, we told you so,” which would make my heart explode. I was alone, in the truest, purest, most absolute sense of the word. And yes, it was quite a sinking feeling.

My brain was off kilter from that point forward. The n-bomb had hit my eardrums — not in a movie or a song or a book, and not from an imperial wizard of the KKK, but from a charismatic friend of mine in real life in 2017 — and something in my psyche was dislocated. I had an emotional limp for the rest of the day. And you know when I felt better? When I hung out with another person of color. It was hours later, and I ran into a friend who happened to be black. We chatted for a while about absolutely nothing. I didn’t even mention the n-word incident. But only in his company did I finally feel “right” once again. Even though we weren’t talking about a damn thing of any particular import, only then did I feel back at home.

And that scared me. I shouldn’t need another black face just to recognize myself and remember who I am.

I hope the person who used the n-word reads this. I hope it makes sense to him. I really, really hope he can forgive me for all the wild and crazy thoughts that crossed my mind when I heard him say that word. And I hope we can both learn from this experience and be better people as a result.

P.S. – If you are thinking about posting a reply with some clever gem of originality like, “but black people use the n-word all the time,” please don’t. I’m too exhausted to explain why, but I beg you, spare me. For now, suffice it to say that if you think Samuel L. Jackson or any other person gives you license to start throwing around the n-word, then maybe you’re in a kind of sunken place too.


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