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 She was withdrawn during the ride home and then escaped quickly to her bedroom.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.
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 “ A
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.
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.