It started out like any dinner with my 8- and 6-year-old boys. There was the usual fussing and complaining and stalling. Desperate to talk about anything other than who hates rice and beans more, I was struck with a brainstorm.
“What’s the worst bad word?” I asked them. “You can just tell me the first letter.”
“The F word,” they said simultaneously, and with authority.
“Yeah, that one’s pretty bad,” I replied. “But did you know there’s one that’s worse?”
I could tell they didn’t believe me. And suddenly I was faced with a dilemma I was completely unprepared for. Why the hell did I start this conversation, again? I silently panicked as four eyes stared at me, owl-like, waiting for the answer.
So then I said it. I said the actual “N word.” They asked for clarification and I had to say it about 4-5 more times. My discomfort felt like a cold, hairy, blanket wrapped all over me. Then they repeated it back to me, and I felt like I crawling out of my skin.
What followed was a really great– if uncomfortable–conversation about equality and history and the power of words. When I grew up I remember there were so many secrets. I knew what words or concepts were forbidden, but often I didn’t know why. I want better for my kids.
My kids have both studied civil rights in school, so they have a working knowledge of the history of segregation, slavery, and prejudice. But what I realized is that we don’t talk enough about racism in today’s world.
They learn that Rosa Parks sat in the front of the bus or that Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream, but they don’t talk about how their black friends will surely be profiled and punished for their race, even right here in the 21st century.
So we talked about how the “N word” has historically been used to degradate and punish people of color. We talked about how people still say it, and that it can be full of hate. And then, just to confuse them more, we talked about how people of color can say it all they want, and it is theirs to own and appropriate as they see fit.
We talked about the fact black teenagers are dying at the hands of police and citizens, and that black men are far more likely to be incarcerated than any other group. The problem with the “N word,” I told them, is that it perpetuates the historical belief that people of color are lesser people.
It was a pretty heady conversation for dinner. I could see them glazing over at times. The 6-year-old took the opportunity to tell me all the bad words he knows that aren’t the “N word.” It was a good distraction, but I persevered.
Like all things in parenting, I’m not sure I handled this well. I did the best I could, and hopefully my kids grow from the experience.
Have you talked to your kids about the “N word” and racial injustice? What could i have done better? Respond in comments or on Facebook.