When You Hear The N-Word at Church

Warning: contains explicit language.

My daughter’s words dropped heavy in the air between us.

She pulled the comforter up over her head so I wouldn’t be able to see her. She hid her face from me while she cried.

I sat on the edge of her bed and drew a deep breath, the nasty words echoing in my mind. I tried to push down the anger that tightened the back of my throat as I gathered my thoughts. How should I respond?

I had known something was wrong as soon as she got in the car after youth group. Her sisters and brothers were chattering away in the back seat, but she turned her face to the window and stared quietly into the dark. She was withdrawn during the ride home and then escaped quickly to her bedroom.

I managed the chaos of our nightly bedtime routine and when I finally had everyone else settled and tucked in, I climbed the stairs to her bedroom.

It took another twenty minutes to convince her to tell me what was wrong.

“Erin* (not her real name) and I were walking through the parking lot before youth group. I told her I liked the shiny black car parked in front of the church and she said to me, ‘Oh. Not that car. It is nigger colored.’ Then she kind of covered her mouth with her hand, giggled a little bit and said, ‘Oops. Sorry.’ But I don’t think she really was sorry.”

The comment had pierced my daughter’s heart and festered there for the rest of the night. By the time she got home and climbed into bed, she couldn’t contain the hurt anymore. She didn’t understand why her friend would say this to her.

I rubbed her back and talked about ignorance. I told her those kinds of words are a reflection of the person who says them, not the person who hears them. I reminded her we don’t find our identity in what other people think about us, but in the One who created us.

But nothing I said really mattered in that moment. She needed some time to process her feelings and a little extra love from her mother while she did it.

When she cried herself out, I kissed her beautiful coffee-colored cheek and said her prayers. I walked softly out of the room, afraid to shatter her still-fragile feelings.

I thought about calling Erin’s mother. I know her well. She is my friend. She would be horrified if she knew Erin said that word to my daughter. She would sit her down immediately and have a serious talk with her.

Then I thought, Why has she not already had this talk? Why has she not discussed the vile meaning and devastating implications of this word? Why has she not impressed upon her children the importance of never using this word, even in jest?

There is the possibility that she did talk about all of those things and still her daughter chose to use that word. But there is also the possibility that this is a conversation she has never considered having with her children.

Have you?

When you talked to your children about their behavior — about coarse language, profanity, or bullying — did you discuss the n-word? Did you single it out and explain its origins? Did you talk about the dark underbelly of our country’s history? Did you tell your children that this particular word is not the same as other curse words? This word wields more power. It carries the weight of hundreds of years of slavery and institutionalized racism.

Dictionary.com says The term nigger is now probably the most offensive word in English. Slang: Extremely Disparaging and Offensive. A contemptuous term used to refer to a person of any racial or ethnic origin regarded as contemptible, inferior, ignorant, etc.”

It is not a word white parents like to discuss with our children. It makes us uncomfortable. We don’t know how to deal with the feelings associated with it: feelings of guilt and shame, feelings of unease surrounding racial tensions we don’t fully understand. We worry we might further perpetuate racial divides. We wonder if we can properly address the topic. We don’t know what is okay to say and what is not.

Why do some people whisper the word “black” and cut their eyes to me when we discuss my children’s heritage?

Not because they are racist.

But because they don’t know if it is proper for them to use this terminology.

Why did the lady standing behind me in line at the department store say to her friend, “I don’t know what to call them anymore. They don’t want to be called African American because they are not from Africa. What word should I use when I talk about them?”

I almost turned around and said, “People. Human. Brother. Sister. Friend. Take your pick. There are plenty of appropriate words to use.” But I held my tongue and stood facing forward, thankful my children were not with me to hear.

Of course, if my children were with me, she never would have had this conversation with her friend. She felt free to say these things because none of our African American brothers and sisters were nearby.

Parents, we must take it upon ourselves to teach our children. Ignoring the racial tension in our country is not going to make it disappear. Feeling uncomfortable about discussing it does not give us a free pass. Let’s accept the challenge of training up the next generation to be better than we are.

I will lay it out for you.

African American? Okay.

Black? Okay.

Nigger? NOT OKAY.

I don’t pretend to understand all of the complexities surrounding this issue. I know there are nuanced layers to the word and its history. Many steps need to be taken to begin to heal the racial tensions in our country.

Let me tell you step one.

Talk to your children. Tell them about that word. If they don’t understand it, they might feel free to use it. Not because they are racist, but because they are ignorant. And the fault for their ignorance will rest squarely on your shoulders.

I am not claiming to be an expert on this topic. This is not a comprehensive discussion on all things race-related. In fact, I am probably getting some things wrong and ruffling some feathers while I do it. But at least I am talking about it. I am trying my best. I am willing to make a misstep if it means I am moving in the right direction.

Let me finish with this: My daughter is going to meet people who think less of her because of her skin color. She is going to have to fight harder to be granted the same privileges my white children will be automatically afforded. She is going to hear this nasty word again in her life.

Please do your best to ensure it is not coming from the mouth of your child.

Thank you.

12 thoughts on “When You Hear The N-Word at Church

  1. Anik Domb

    This stuff begins at home… it takes a lot of self control not to slap this Erin!!! I’m so sorry your child had to suffer from this child. It’s time we all teach our children that we are all equal regardless of color. Teaching our kids to be good human beings is our most important job.

  2. Krystal

    Hurting for your girl. Will cover this topic today to make sure my kids understand. I’ve been working on genealogy recently, and I have been stopped in my tracks and grieved each time I found an ancestor with slaves.

    1. Natalie Gwyn Post author

      Krystal, your comment made me get a lump in my throat. That you would say you “will cover this topic today to make sure my kids understand.” I appreciate you! <3

  3. Dorotha Putnam

    I honestly haven’t heard that word in many years…like so many things I have naively thought our society had grown beyond…but I was wrong. The evil that is in the world still affects us wherever it can, and does what it can to keep us from reaching our potential. It worms it’s way into the speech of little children, and little adults. We need to recognize how we are used for evil and find ways to turn it around. I wish we could erase the false concept of race from our world. We are each so unique, but all part of the human race. Putting verbal boxes around people with hideous or even subtle labels is damaging to all of us as discouragement robs the world of the talents thus disabled. Give the sweet one an extra hug from her
    g-ma and remind her that God has an amazing plan for her life!

  4. Sylvia O'Haver

    Terrific, gutsy article, Natalie! I am going to forward it to other moms at NCR and elsewhere. My grandchildren are half black, but without the beautiful bronze skin tones (kinda of sad, that). They know they are half and half and seem very comfortable with it. They live in a large city with much diversity so all the kids mix in well together. But twenty years ago their mother was afraid to come to Redding, CA and be seen in the mall with a white man, knowing how provincial was our fair city in northern California! In the church all people of all colors should be welcomed with open arms, and frank open discussions about race relations should take place within our walls! This is not political, but scriptural! The Apostle Paul addressed it in his letters to the churches. So should we!

    1. Natalie Gwyn Post author

      “This is not political, but scriptural!” YES! You are absolutely right. Thank you, Sylvia.

  5. Lynn Painter

    This is rough! My kids heard stupid comments and still do… Just the other day a “friend” of my son said something like, Did your mom roll you in soy sauce when you were born? He took it as a joke… I’m just still mad about it. Words really do hurt. I try to talk to my kids about it, but it takes some time to heal. I’m so sorry. Your daughter is beautifully loved.

    1. Natalie Gwyn Post author

      What a mean-spirited comment to make to your son. Kids can be cruel. Heck, adults can be cruel! Figuring out how to best equip our kids to deal with these kinds of comments is hard.

  6. sarahb5149

    I ache for both of your hearts. It stings worse with an empty apology. The intent was there…your kiddo felt the full meaning of it. She is beautiful and brave (which you already know). Thank you for sharing, for alerting us to make sure we do our part. She must learn her bravery from your example.

    1. Natalie Gwyn Post author

      Thank you, Sarah, for saying that: for being willing to do your part. <3

  7. Clair

    Natalie, I’m so sorry that your beautiful girl had to experience that.
    Your writing is beautiful! You are an amazingly talented woman in more ways than one

  8. Grandpa

    All six of your wonderful children are equal in every way! It truly saddens me when one of them is hurt, excepecualy by words that come from stupidity. If we and I mean all people could just see all colors as the beautiful thing it is! Not better and certainly not worst but just different yet both beautiful! We need to stop this hurtful behavior and look at everyone as GOD does! We are all GODS children and loved dearly by him! I know I love them all, and if they were green or blue I’d feel the same way! All of them are beautiful!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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