This morning I made a post to Facebook about the ‘N’ word. Unless you’re living under a rock, you probably know to which word I am referring. It is that nasty little word that people think died long ago. I heard it in the aisle of Target, while shopping for a few office supplies, after dropping off Tess at Fairy Ballerina Camp. I was alone, which never happens. All of the sudden, I hear, “…because all the ni**ers shop at Wal-Mart.”
That can’t have been what he said. I glanced down the aisle at the man and woman at the end of it. He wasn’t wearing a confederate flag t-shirt with the sleeves cut off? He didn’t appear to be a skinhead? He was wearing khaki pants and a polo shirt. The uniform of someone like, I don’t know, my husband? He was your average white guy. Except, who the %$#@ says that? I must have heard wrong. Except, I had not, because 2.2 seconds later, he repeated it.
Do I say something? I’m alone. He probably thinks that in this aisle, with this white lady at the other end, he was safe saying it.
He was mistaken. He got an earful. He sputtered around, made excuses for himself, even AFTER I pulled up a picture of my kids, in an attempt to humanize the people he was using that word to refer to, and held it out for him to look at. “I’ve heard black people say it to each other.” Yes. He actually said that. He said it as if it excused his ugliness. You know what? I’ve heard it said within the black community too. You know what?
Jake from State Farm, you’re not black.
That’s right. There is a LARGE “double standard” (I’m quoting this man here) about the use of that word by white people versus the use of it within the black community. You know what? It’s not about you as a white person, or your right to use a word that your community coined to oppress and belittle other people. And, I shouldn’t have to educate anyone on this. But sadly, I, myself, required a little education from my own children. So, I’m going to share what I learned from them, because that’s what I do here, I openly share my own learning experiences and mistakes.
My husband and I are both white, and I’ve described the bubble we grew up in. Joe lived in a much more diverse area of our city then I did. He had black friends. I did not. The first time I heard the word ni**er was when a white child in the second grade used it to refer to a boy from India. His skin was not even that dark, but he was the darkest person in the school, so a little white boy thought that word must have applied to his friend with brownish skin.
Joe heard his black friends use the word to refer to one another. We both knew that word wasn’t meant for us to ever, under any circumstances, utter. We were taught that early on. We learned the origins of the word and the feelings it elicited for other humans in this world. It has crossed my lips when I’m reading books like To Kill A Mockingbird or Huckleberry Finn. Other than that, never.
When we adopted the boys, I vowed that no one would EVER refer to them that way. White, black, it didn’t matter. Never. I learned quickly that it was out of my control to say ‘never’ to a white person referring to my child that way. It took me awhile, but I learned it standing on the edge of a soccer field as I watched AJ play. Yes, it was said to refer to my son. “That little ni**er out there…” and then I didn’t even hear the rest. That was all it took. My entire field of vision went red. An ugly confrontation ensued that involved me screaming for the person who had uttered that horrible word to go out there and say it to my son. Oh yes I did. I wanted it said TO AJ. I shouted, “You march out there, onto that field and you have the guts to look my son in the eye and call him that to.his.face!” I promised to stand by and get video of the whole thing before I called the police, because we would surely need police intervention. For me. Because I had lost total control. It wasn’t a pretty scene. This man got in his car and left. There was nothing left to say. He was horribly wrong.
A few years went by, and I was met with the word again. This time, in reference to my eldest son, and in a situation I hadn’t really even considered. I’m picking him up at school, a friend who looks like him walks up to him a few paces before I do, grabs his hand, pulls him in for a brief hello and says “Hey ni**a, wassup?”
This was how I looked.
There was shock. Then there was a nervous side eye, and much like today in the aisle of Target, I looked around for someone to intervene. *Nervous side eye. Nervous side eye* What do I do here? Oh my God. Do I ignore it? Will someone else say something? Do I run up, seeing red, and tell the two boys “Don’t use that word! You CANNOT use that word! Do you know what that word means?”
Then I realized…
They know what it means.
They know what it means because for 400 years their ancestors wore it as a yoke that kept them “in their place.” They know what it means because they were told that it divided them into the separate, but “equal” category of the world. They know what it means because it was hurled at them as they demanded a seat on the bus. They know what it means because even today it is used, sometimes outright, and sometimes in a form of an achievement gap, or redlining, definitely in the form of segregation, often in the form of mass incarceration. They may not know all the facts about all of those events just yet, but trust me, they know it.
They know what it means.
So, I said nothing, and I have told my African-American children that I will continue to say nothing. That word is theirs now. Not mine. Not ever again. People who look like me handed it to them, along with the burden of its creation, it is not my job to tell them how or when to use it.
I am culturally white. That word is unacceptable in my world. My son is culturally black. As he grows, he will have to find out how that word fits into his world. Cam, Brady, and now AJ, are learning how to code switch seamlessly. They walk between two worlds. Ally does it less. She is much more comfortable with cultural whiteness. I’m not certain why that is. We’re exploring that. But ultimately, it’s her decision to be where she feels comfortable.
We’ve discussed this word. The kids have heard it said by their friends. We’ve talked about how it makes them feel. They’ve told me that it doesn’t make them feel any one particular way when it’s said by someone who looks like them. I respect that. My children will understand all the history behind it, trust me. Several of them understand it now. For one of them, they feel the word is being taken back by the community that was punished by it in the first place. That is his right to feel that way.
My children also know that word will never cross the lips of their dad or I, because of the history we carry with us too, one that places us, historically, squarely in the role of oppressor. They know that the word isn’t welcome in the walls of our home, because it makes my eye twitch. They have agreed to inform their friends of this. But, they know that they have a right to use it, that I don’t necessarily approve, but that I can’t, and won’t try to, stop them. They also know that I’m not the only white person whose eye will twitch over the use of the word, so they had better read the situation accordingly. So far, I’ve never heard any of them use it. I’ll try not to be as unprepared should I hear it in the future.
–FullPlateMom, whose eye twitches even when she only types the word.