I didn't grow up with a great deal of racial diversity. Home was a small town in southern California, northeast of the city of San Diego by about 45 minutes. Predominantly Caucasian, we had a fairly substantial Latino population but, beyond that, there wasn't much representation of minorities.
I don't remember much at all about my early education on slavery, segregation, and racism. I'm sure I learned my fair share in a classroom, surrounded by all my white peers, hearing about the Civil War and Martin Luther King Jr. Then, just as now, we tapped briefly, told the white students a few highlights of black history and moved on. My parents must have educated me further because I can remember, for forever, knowing that there is a VERY bad word that we NEVER, EVER say. I feel pretty confident in guessing that there wasn't a lesson in my mostly white school about not saying the n-word.
I can never remember saying it. Not to someone, not in the privacy of my own bedroom just for the sake of saying it, not ever. As a child, that word was, to me, the most angry and evil thing imaginable. Somehow, I had to have been taught. I had to have had, instilled in me, the idea that the n-word carried a weight, unforgivable and inexcusable. I struggled through The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird--loving them with an affection that continues to this day, but wrestling with how we might adequately remember a piece of our American history without THAT piece.
I've wondered if my intense aversion to this six letter word was somehow born of a subconscious, God-given foresight that, one day, I would be the white woman trying to grow the black boy to manhood.
I have said the n-word. I've said it as calmly and as matter-of-factly as I can manage. I have said it because I have instructed my son. I have told him that he will hear it, that people will say it to him and about him, that it will appear in literature and history. We have talked about its use in pop culture and within the African-American community. It was not easy for me to say because in such a small word there is so much history and heartache, so much degradation of an entire people group--a group in which my son belongs. It is pointedly inflammatory and I highly doubt that it will ever be free of its connotation of intimidation and oppression.
"The word n-----, you see, sums up for us who are colored all the bitter years of insult and struggle in America." -Langston Hughes The Big Sea
An online dictionary begins with a usage warning and lists the word as extremely disparaging. It's warning says this, "The term...is now probably the most offensive word in English. Its degree of offensiveness has increased markedly in recent years, although it has been used in a derogatory manner since at least the Revolutionary War...Extremely Disparaging and Offensive represent meanings that are deeply insulting and are used when the speaker deliberately wishes to cause great offense. It is so profoundly offensive that a euphemism has developed for those occasions when the word itself must be discussed, as in court or in a newspaper editorial: 'the n-word.'"
Saying it--in painful lessons to my son--did not prepare me for the look on his face when it was used last night. I might have dared to hope that he would not be only 8 years old. I might have hoped that it would not come from an older, white boy.
"Mom, I have to tell you something," I've never thought I'd seen the color drained from the face of my perfect, brown boy. Something was wrong. His whisper, when I went to him, was barely audible. "A boy said the n-word."
Every nerve, from the top of my head to the tip of my toes began to buzz. I calmly asked him to point me to the one who said it. He was, maybe, 12 or, perhaps, 13. Older than Garrett. Old enough to know. I found myself feeling thankful that it hadn't been a, "Hey you, n-----!" or "Get outta here, n-----!" Instead, the boy had asked my son if he knew what it meant.
I have no idea what his plan was or what he hoped to gain or make Matthew lose in the exchange but, after Matthew mumbled, "yes," the boy said, "It means you're black." My son, who is usually almost deathly afraid of new people and circumstances, whose default when threatened is always flight and never fight, apparently looked this bigger white boy in the eye and said squarely, "Stop." And then he came to find me.
Perhaps the boy didn't assume that the white lady coming to talk to him was related to the brown boy he'd decided to instruct in the ways of oppressive language with more than two centuries of historical baggage. I instructed him more perfectly. Calmly, but with fire in my eyes. We. Don't. Say. That. Word.
We, little white boy. You and me. We are not guilty of past atrocities but we are responsible for our actions and our words. We can remind the black man, with one six letter word, that there was a very long time in our history when he was forced to be less. When that boy said that word, when he told Matthew that it means he is black, what he really meant was that there was somehow a clear distinction between him, the scooter riding punk kid, and my son. And that the distinction "clearly" placed the white boy on top of their social order.
Let me be clear. I am not calling the boy a racist. (Nor am I calling RACIST on everyone who has ever said that word.) "Racist" is not a word to be thrown around lightly or tagged on to someone without serious consideration. He is a kid. I truly do not believe that he hates Matthew and wanted him to suffer. I do think he is operating from a place of severe ignorance. Please, if you are in a position of influence in the life of a child, teach him that there's a word that carries a punch he doesn't want to throw.
I firmly believe that it is only through conversation and awareness, forgiveness and love, that we can even begin to bridge the racial tension in our country. I will always be the white mother of a black son. And I will always do whatever it takes to see that he is given every opportunity to rise.
Out of the huts of history's shame
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave