By Dr. Akilah Cadet
The scenery of Bordeaux, France is literally a fairytale. Châteaus, manicured vineyards, and soft warm sun. I have traveled to France many times, but this was my first time in the picturesque city. My words about diversity in wine were first shared on a panel at Bâtonnage, a women in wine forum in May. My words were literally heard around the world as I was asked by the Areni Institute to speak about diversity at their Think Tank in Bordeaux during the Fourth of July weekend. As you know, America is not acting like the land of the free and I was excited to not have to feel like I should celebrate during a time where people of color, immigrants, and women are losing their freedom and lives.
I was part of a round table, titled “Language, Marketing, and Diversity: Rethinking the Way We Talk About Wine” held in a cold, yet charming wine cellar.” The tablecloth was white, the blanket around my shoulders was white, and so were the participants around the table. I was the only black person and person of color. I was the diversity in a conversation about diversity.
When the conversation started I chose to listen as I'm new to the wine industry and always respect the expertise in the room. Discussion moved to social media, the young consumer, and big data analytics for marketing to the new/future consumer. A white woman, who mentioned at the start of the round table that she had some data that may be applicable to the conversation elected to share a visual. Before showing her laptop screen, she looked at me and said “Akilah I would love your feedback as you are the diversity person.”
Her laptop was positioned for all of use to see two blue circles that looked like targets. I saw the word. Kathy shared how her data looked at themes (words and hashtags) on social media about chilled red wine. She even mentioned Black Twitter. I kept looking at the word. She continued to explain one circle represented black people and the other on represented everyone else (her client is looking for ways to market to people of color). The wheel visualization had word with the highest incidence in big letters in the center and the words that weren't as prevalent were smaller and listed in the outer ring.
In all capital letters was NIGGAS BEEFIN.
I thought to myself, is she going to say it? I was shocked to see those words. Why were they there? Why didn’t it say N-Word or N*****? She said it five times. I sat there and counted. I asked her to not say the word multiple times. Kathy kept saying it as if it was an everyday word. With ease and comfort. As I asked her again to not say it, another white woman from Seattle, Washington said, “Is wigger better?”
“This cannot be happening…this is not real,” I said in my head over an over again. But I felt the cold from the wine cellar, I wrapped myself in my blanket tighter, I pinched my hand, and said “no, that’s also offensive not what we are talking about.” I didn’t have time to get into that as a white woman kept repeating the n-word. In my plea to have her stop saying the word, A white man, said “that word is not for us to say” (I thanked him later as he said it was appalling to hear). I followed by saying “that word is not for you to say as a white person; it's not for you. It's a word for black people reclaiming a negative word.” At that moment she stopped.
I sat there for 45 minutes to an hour triggered. Triggered! I felt the anger rise in my blood. I felt the ancestral trauma boil up until the round table ended. When it was over I found the only other black person in this entire Think Tank of 65 invited guests. I told the Beyoncé of Wine, Julia Coney what happened (side note, look her up she is amazing).
Like black women often do she became my protector and immediately had my back. In that moment of comfort and solidarity, Kathy came over to us. She said, “I am sorry for saying the n-word.” I said “as you should and thank you. But why did you say the word in the first place?” She said she didn’t know and had never said the word before. Now, I was perplexed because she typed up the word, put in on a visual, and said it multiple times with ease.
I questioned her. “That's really interesting because you came over to apologize for using the n-word so you know it wasn't okay to say it; you made a choice.” I then explained the history around the world regardless of "er/ers" or "a/as" at the end of the word and how her reference was a word that black people created to reclaim a negative and incredibly traumatic word. That if the n-word was to be used in data it should be truncated, you know, like how she apologized.
I went on to say that she has no excuses as she lives in Atlanta, Georgia the black Hollywood capital with no absence of black people in her city. I told Kathy that I was excited to be out of the country for the 4th and how I never thought that in Bordeaux I would have to deal with this. That as a black woman in America my life is threatened every single day and for her to not validate my words when I was sitting directly across her as the only black person at the table was a horrific experience. She is a writer for a major publication so in my teaching moment I shared how she knows first-hand how derogatory the word is and how she has seen white celebrities use the word and ripped apart by the media. She had no excuse.
I questioned her use of power and privilege especially since she had a visual cue to not say the word. Kathy did not see me. She chose to not see me. Like some white women in America using their white privilege to ignore my existence. I said “you asked for my feedback as the diversity person at the Think Tank. You literally used my name in reference to your data and you STILL felt it was okay to use the n-word. You made a choice.” As my voice began to crack, but still full of power and confidence, I said “never, ever say that word again.” As the tears started to build in my eyes and my breath became short, I went to the bathroom to cry. White women are exhausting and I was tired.
Later that night there was a gala. Once I arrived at yet another gorgeous château, Kathy was apologizing yet again. This time with white tears aka when white people feel their white privilege is being threatened. She was sick with what happened. I told her it is a journey for her to go on to figure out why she said the word.
The next morning, white tears transcended into white guilt. Kathy was still troubled by saying the n-word multiple times. She wanted to know what to do. Once again I told her that she had a journey to getting to the point of saying the word and she will have a journey understanding why she said it. That the intent of the use of the n-word was to not harm, but the outcome was just that. Please note, that it is not the responsibility of black people to help white people figure out why they say derogatory and racism terms or practice discriminatory behavior.
I said “I am going to tell you something that you will not understand. There is something called ancestral trauma. By you saying the n-word yesterday I not only have to feel the negative outcome of that word which you saw with the start of my tears. I had to feel the trauma of my ancestors who were harmed or even lost their lives because of that word.” She wanted to work together and I said that is a longer conversation. In the afternoon she became the white savior. “I found a client for you, some work for you,” Kathy said with a feeling of accomplishment. I said that it would need to be a longer conversation.
Now, some would think, just work with her. But something was missing. She never shared what she would do to take action to not say the n-word again. Kathy was embarrassed. Kathy felt guilt. Kathy was upset. Kathy was sick to her stomach. Kathy was hurt. Kathy ignored my pain, my trauma, my energy I had to put into stopping her from saying a derogatory word. Kathy did not care about my feelings, she wanted me to validate her goodness as a white woman.
I am not the one.
Kathy only cared about her feelings. Even when I visibly shared mine. Remember, tears welted as the last thing I could say before getting choked up was “never, ever say that word again.” But to her, that didn’t matter; her white privilege was more important to protect. As soon as I touched down in San Francisco there was an email:
Subject: Bordeaux, Friday Round Table
Message: Akilah, hello — How are you?
I’m reaching out via your website here, in hopes that we can stay in touch moving forward. What passed between us was a deeply emotional experience for me, and what you said at lunch on Friday has been front of mind since then. I have no rationale for my blind spot — “It’s what the data says” doesn’t cut it, I see with painful clarity — nor do I have an excuse.
Earlier today I sent the topic wheel visualization to my client, censored per your and Julia’s suggestion, along with my best explanation for its edited format. If you have any interest at all in seeing it, I’d be happy to share. I will also put your name and company forward when it is time for the client to move ahead with their outreach to people of color.
If you see another way to utilize Friday’s round table incident in an educative or productive manner, I’d be very open to hearing it.
I look forward to your thoughts in response, Akilah —
Deeply. Emotional. Experience. For. Me.
See. I am not seen. My feelings are not valued. My trauma ignored. To the Kathy’s of the world continue your journey, Google, talk to your white friends, learn from your mistakes and trauma you have inflicted on black people. Grow from it. And if you can, become a white ally (like the white man who advocated for me). But remember to not overlook or undervalue the outcome of your actions toward black people. We matter.