Why My White Uber Driver Thought It Was OK To Say the N-Word

She said the racist word in a car full of four black women. I called to ask her why


My white Uber driver said “n—er” and immediately regretted it.

In the days after Donald Trump’s election, I was wary about visiting my family in Virginia for the Thanksgiving holiday. I don’t care if the state voted blue — it’s surrounded by a whole lot of red. Plus, I’d been blindsided hard enough by the events of Nov. 8 that I couldn’t help but be extra cautious.

Following the election I was bombarded with accounts of overt racism (remember “Day 1 in Trump’s America”?) and having already been in a questionable situation in California, I was preparing myself for what was to come in Virginia.

It was a nine hour journey to Virginia and I had plenty of time to practice my bitchface during my layover in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas. I was determined not to let any emboldened racist Trump supporter to get to me. I was ready for it all, or so I thought.

On Friday night, my cousin, two friends and I decided to go out, and ordered an Uber. And that’s how we met Brenda, our Uber driver.

To be quite honest, I had my own prejudices when I got into Brenda’s car. An older white woman would be driving us downtown tonight…hmmm…did she vote for Trump? I mean you can’t be an Uber driver and be racist, right? Whatever, just get in the car, stay quiet, and make it to your destination, I thought to myself.

My friends and I loved Brenda. She was maybe in her 40s and we spoke to her as if she were our cool aunt. The conversation drifted across all sorts of topics, from asking Brenda what she did for a living (aside from driving with Uber) to her giving us relationship advice. She had been divorced before and was currently seeing a man who took her on lavish vacations, so she had a lot of life experience to bestow upon us.

My cousin began venting about her relationship issues and in doing so, she said something along the lines of “small dick n—a.”

Some black people choose to use the word with an “a” at the end — and some don’t — and whether or not it’s “acceptable” to use is a decision that is ultimately up to the black person using it and no one else. I happen to be in the camp that believes the word is acceptable to use. I hear it quite often and I say it on occasion when I’m among my friends who also identify as black.

Seeking clarification, Brenda repeated what my cousin said: “So let me get this straight. You are messing with a small dick n—er.”

The once lively, carefree and laughter-filled Uber ride turned dead silent. One of my friends hid her disbelief by looking out the window, the other one stayed silent, and my cousin looked stunned. And I, sitting in the front right next to our dear Brenda, didn’t know what to do or say.

My initial thoughts about racism in Trump’s America came flooding back, but I wasn’t angry. I was just hurt — how could someone who was just cracking jokes with us, embracing us like old friends and laughing with us say something that was so deep-rooted in hate? Damn it Brenda, I knew I should have continued on with my bitchface plan.

I had seen the word in print embedded deep in the comments section of some articles, I had heard it uttered in viral racist videos, but up until Friday night I don’t recall ever hearing it said by someone who wasn’t black in my presence. It was a strange feeling and I didn’t know if I should attribute Brenda’s slip of the tongue to the fact that Trump was President-elect or just to the fact that she was careless and maybe a little racist.

Now, sure, there isn’t technically much difference between what my cousin said and what Brenda repeated, except for that pesky “-er.” Oh, and also the fact that it was a white woman saying it. Had she said the version that cut off that painful “-er,” it still would not have been OK, but it would have potentially softened the blow. But Brenda went all in.

I had prepared for this moment for the past several years. I knew exactly what to say when people criticized the Black Lives Matter movement, had all the knowledge ready to go for when anyone dared to remark on police brutality against black bodies, knew the ins and outs (to a certain extent) of anything relating to the racial climate in the U.S. — but when it came to Brenda I sat there silent.

What do I say to Brenda? Do I say anything at all? How could she? My mind raced with thoughts, but my mouth stayed still.

The car was silent for all but about 10 seconds — which felt like a lifetime — until my cousin spoke up and told Brenda what she had said was offensive.

She immediately apologized, saying she regretted saying it and that she didn’t mean to be offensive. She continued to apologize over and over again — she appeared really sincere.

Though the conversation continued on to the more benign subject of Brenda’s daughter, none of us could shake the bad feelings that had been drawn out.

It was the same feeling you get when you log on to Facebook during a Black Lives Matter protest and realize that some of your high school friends are actually pretty racist.

Two days passed.

I wasn’t upset. But I felt like I needed to speak to Brenda.

I found a way to contact her. She didn’t pick up at first, so I left her a message asking her to call me back. To my surprise, she did. She didn’t have to, but she did.

I told Brenda exactly what was on my mind: That I know she wasn’t coming from a place of bigotry, but I wanted to know why she felt that it was OK to say “n—er.”

She said she never thinks it’s OK to say something like that, and that that’s not the type of person she is. Initially, she didn’t hesitate to say it because she felt like we were all joking and it was in good fun, but when she saw the hurt in my cousin’s eyes, she said, she knew that she had crossed the line.

Brenda said that she understands how it can be taken, given the current political climate, and that she never meant to offend anyone and that she was truly sorry for ever saying it.

Brenda was right. She should never have said anything like that, regardless of whether or not she felt like she was in a comfortable enough environment to say it.

Brenda is not a racist, but she said something that was very racist.

I experience microagressions on a daily basis that I normally don’t give much energy or thought to with the exception of a slight eye roll or judgy side eye, but Brenda was different. She blatantly said “n—er” without hesitation as I, a black woman, sat right next to her. Usually when someone hurts you or upsets you, you either throw hands or walk away from the situation, either forgetting about it or choosing to revisit it at a later time. This time, I felt helpless. I can’t fight Brenda and I didn’t want to.

I’m very aware that racism is alive in the United States and I didn’t need Trump’s victory to tell me that. What most terrified me about the President-elect wasn’t that he himself would be in office. It was the idea that perhaps every closeted racist (I’m looking at you, undercover white women that voted for Trump) would feel free to speak to me however they wanted, treat me whichever way they thought fit, because hey, Trump is president now.

And initially, it felt like that’s what Brenda did. Speak to me however which way she wanted. And Brenda showed me that I wouldn’t react how I thought I would.

That terrified me even more.