The N-Word

Last night I was peacefully curled up on the couch, reading "The Templar Legacy" by Steve Berry, and watching my kids wrestle on the floor. Suddenly, my eldest was next to me, poking me in the arm.

"Excuse me, I have a question for you," he said. There was an expectant look in his eyes, the look that only six year-olds can give. The look that says, "Drop everything and pay attention to me, right now."

So I asked him, "What's your question?"

"What's the n-word?"

Whoa. I wasn't expecting that one. It felt a little like those moments folks talk about when their kid says, "What's sex?" Yes, I should be prepared for this kind of question, because, let's face it, discussion of the word is all over the TV and radio these days. I don't even need to listen to an old NWA track to hear it. All I need to do is keep the radio on NPR. (Damn that NPR!)

I needed to mentally readjust my brain from the fiction of Rennes le Chateau and Templar treasure. So, I stalled for time by answering his question with a question.

"Where did you hear that?" I asked.

"Oh, I don't know. Maybe on the radio or something," he responded.

Yes, damn that NPR! So I asked another question, to see what he think he knew. "What do you think the n-word is?"

He leaned down, a gleam in his eye, and whispered in my ear, "It's "nasty", isn't it?"

"Um, no, it's not "nasty"", I replied back. My suppressed laughter faded as I immediately recognizing that my truthfulness was just going to open the door to another flood of questions.

"Well, what is it then?"

And I didn't want to tell him. I know I should have, but I just couldn't do it. I know I should have because if I don't, someone else will. But, dang it, I really didn't want to.

I told him to ask me tomorrow. Well, today is tomorrow and he hasn't asked me yet. But that kid has a memory like a pit bull gets lockjaw. He'll remember.

I have an idea about what I'm going to say, but I'm curious, what do you all think I should say?


Malik Akbar said…
It's a word that white people used to describe Black people when they treated them like property. It's more than just saying a person is vile or worthless. It's saying they're not a person at all.
Anonymous said…
This is the kind of question that makes me nervous about becoming a parent. I really want to know how you choose to answer.
Anonymous said…
Confirm his suspicions: "Yes, Baby, it IS nasty. It is a nasty, nasty word used to hurt, insult and give other people permission to treat [Black, AA, Negro people...Liz, you'll have to do the chronology for him. I'm sure they've already questioned why you get to be called Black. Ooh. I now remember my first introduction to you...I'm in the same boat, so I don't mean to jab] as less than fully human."

You can probably go about 48 more Sundays before you have to fully flesh it out.

Anonymous said…
The Truth...and then end it with, " I don't care what other kids might say, but I do not ever want to hear that word come out of YOUR mouth"!!!
I think that what Malik said is a good place to start. It should be treated in an emotional sense in the way that you would treat any word that is dehumanizing. For example a lot of kids I hear go around saying this or that is "gay" without necessarily understanding what they are talking about. Basically there are words that should never come out of the same mouth we use to pray with. The N-word is one of those words but there are others as well. Sounds like a tough situation, but one I am looking forward to having to deal with someday soon.
Advanced Guard said…
Liz, I couldn't find an email address for you so I thought I would do it this way. I'm still new to this. Thank you so much for your kind words about my effort. I would love to get your email so I can include you in some of the recent discussions between various friends. Everyones contributions are important here and I would love to include you voice.

All my best

Jameil said…
this is why i'm so not ready to be a parent right now. but part of the reason i have such a good relationship w/my mom now is because she was honest with us. when we had questions about stuff, she told us in age-appropriate ways. she bought me a book about martin luther king for 8-year-olds and his experience with color. there's a countee cullen poem, too

i think you have to tell him and explain its not a nice word with some history mixed in. let him lead it by letting him ask questions. it helps if you have those tools with you, maybe something about tolerance and treating people well.
Anonymous said…
Always be honest,just don't go to deep for a 6 year old. Tell him it's a bad word, sometimes used to try to hurt black people's feelings. Tell him some black people say it to each other so no one can hurt their feelings first. Most important tell him Mommy and Daddy do not use that word and you don't want him to either.
oreo cookie said…
We have had these conversations with our daughters not just about the N-word but many others like "why is life easier for whites" and the countless discussions that have come about because of some thoughtlessly assigned school project asking about why your family immigrated and if there are pictures or artifacts. I have found that the best policy is honesty and also to answer the question as soon as possible if not immediately.

The honesty part is tricky because it has caused my children to cry over injustice (such as not being able to legally read as a black person in this country or families not living together). But crying with me is better than them crying in the world because they don't have a framework in which to put the way they have been treated into context. And oddly enough, it's helped them stand up for themselves.

I think it's important to answer them as soon as possible because the waiting time often gets translated into something scary and very often when the issuse is about a negative part of our collective history, it turns into shame for our children.

So what did we do when confronted with the N-word? We told our kids that it's a word from the past but it's also unfortunaely a word from our present. We told them that the word was created by whites but adopted by blacks too and if someone says it them, that person is not their friend or very mistaken about it's meaning. We also told them its important to recognize the difference. The N-word was created to convey a strong sense of imtimidation and to take away the sense that black people are humans and people that are conected to other people - including whites. We told them that at the time the word was created, white people thought better of their dogs than they did of blacks and thet unfortunately there are still some people who feel that way. However, we figured out that it wasn't what other people thought about us that was important, but what we thought of ourselves that mattered. That's why - and I gave them some examples of accomplishments in our family and I may have even pulled out frederick douglass etc :)

This was a long post - but you did ask.

Also, I have to warn you, this may not be the last time you talk about the N-word with your kids.

Good luck.
Liz, I saw an Oprah show not long ago that had a segment which spoke to this very clearly, and follows along the line of Malik's comment. The show highlight a program carried out by two Black men at a high school -- men who were really tired of hearing black youth use this degrading word with each other. The Oprah show only gave highlights.

First, as the kids filed into the assembly the adults greeted them using the n-word. Then everyone was seated they processed how that made them feel and got feedback from the youth on how/why they used the word. But the clarifying point from the men in charge was the history of what it meant.

A n--- was someone who was owned, who could not walk down the street without permission of his/her master. It meant they were property, like animals, not free human beings. And so on. They gave it the kind of everyday detail that kids could relate to. That stuck with me, though the TV program only gave highlights. But what was also preented was zero tolerance for use of the word -- not in a punitive way, but in a way that focused on supporting the giving of respect to one another.

This was the same program that highlighted Jeffrey Canada, a black man who pulled together all kinds of resources to provide quality education, health care, etc. to children in Harlem -- reaches some 6,000 young people -- because he grew up poor and would not abide the notion that these kids are throw-aways. I live in NY (not the city) and never knew about this guy until that Oprah program. Would like to hear more about this sort of person/program in the daily/nightly news media. Seems to me that everyone should be paying attention to people and things that work.

btw, you might find more of interest for parenting issues on the blog the antiracist parent, which has a range of contributors from inter-cultural/racial families. I have a link to it in my May post Black Butterfly Moon (which I just re-posted on my blog Luminous Realities: Exploring the Creative Process). My May posts are mostly about race and white writers -- and the need for white poets/writers (& artists generally) to engage in writing from their personal experience of race -- to take the lead in contributing to dialogue, which they/we mostly leave to writers of color. Sorry, that's another issue.

Also related to history, I have heard Oprah say something that stuck with me about language and the concept of speaking well as "acting white." Talking with a black writer or artist (can't recall specifics), she made the point that young people can look to African-Americans to emulate like Frederick Douglas, Martin Luther King,(& more currently Sidny Poitier) who spoke with eloquence.

Long comment. Enough already. Hope any of this helps with those deeply-felt parenting issues.
Oh I forgot -- I got the anti-racist parent blog from your website!! A belated thank you for that. Not my personal parenting issue but good for insight and to share.
Jon said…
That is a tough question, probably even tougher than asking about sex. You cannot simplify it and ignore the history of the word.
During the mid-1800s it was label used by everyone to identify a part of our society, free or enslaved.
You have to go into a brief history of the word speaking about where it came from, who used it, when it was used, and in what context it was thrown about.
It seems as though you have to cover a bit of the "awakening" of our country's moral and ethical consciousness (ie The Civil Rights Movement) bringing about the change that forced us to think about how we use our language (except for those who still, in poor taste, choose to use the n-word and many other derogatory words in speech or music).
There is no easy way to answer the question, but obviously you have to tell him that it is a bad word that can hurt people's feelings, and make people mad.
You can't just tell him "Don't ever use the word", that would be like telling him "Don't touch that!". We all know how that works with kids.
Liz Dwyer said…
Everybody, thanks for your thoughts. I love everyone's various explanations/thoughts. It turns out he really does think that the n-word is "nasty" but I went ahead and told him what it was. I asked him if he'd heard anybody saying it before and he said no. I told him that it was a word that white people used to make black people feel like they weren't human, that they were worse than animals.

I asked him if he remembered what we talked about regarding slavery and he did. I told him that the white people would call the slaves the n-word because they treated them like animals and believed they weren't fully human, and that even after slavery, people still called black people that because they wanted them to feel like they weren't human. At this point, he chimed in that this was not true, that God says we're all one family. I told him that was true, but some people don't believe that, and so some people still use the n-word today to try to make a black person feel like they're less than someone else. He said that's bullying someone. (True).
I told him that if he hears anyone say it, he should immediately tell me or his teacher because it's not ok, and that I never wanted to hear him say it. He agreed he'd never say it and then he said, "But nasty is a bad word too, isn't it?"

The downside of this was that Toussaint, the three year-old terror was in the hallway eavesdropping on us. He's at that age where "bad words" are fun to him and between last night and today, he has now said the n-word at least three times. Boy, someone is spending alot of time in timeout!
Jon said…
As if it wasn't hard enough to explain that!
How do you explain to a 6 year old why the music industry and young media icons use the word about each other? Why is it okay for one person to use the word, but not another?

(maybe you can explain it to me too, cuz this kid from Montana just doesn't understand it.... I think it's wrong no matter who is using it, but it's used all the time.)
none said…
My son asked me when he was 8. There was a little boy in his class that said it all the time along with other street lingo.

I had to give him the history and the run down because I was afraid of him getting the wrong information elsewhere.
Anonymous said…
The n-word is so prevalent these days that I'm not sure there's a way to answer the question clearly. I like what Malik said, however what happens when he realizes that black folk are using it today to reference and greet one another? I guess that will be part two of the conversation... Keep it simple.
Wow. This is a tough one.

All I can relate it to, sort of, is when my youngest asked me where she came from.

I said, "I made you in my tummy, and Daddy helped."

About a year later, she said, "When you told me Daddy helped to make me, what did he do?" And I tried to explain as best I could for her age level.

My point is that sometimes you can give children just enough information to satisfy the question w/o overloading their small circuits, as long as you realize that down the road, you will be called upon to go deeper.

This is certainly an issue that will have to be explained repeatedly since it has never made sense, as even a child can see.

I think I would tell him that there are people in the world who have never been taught that it's wrong to dislike someone because of his skin color or the church he goes to, that sometimes they call people nasty names like the "n" word that has been used for a very long time to keep Black people down, which has always been wrong.

I would stress that anyone who does that is just showing how stupid he is and should not be listened to. Since little boys can be physical, I would also warn him not to fight with such people, but to tell an adult.

And I would create opportunities every single day to tell the boys about amazing black men and women in every field who have changed the world in wondrous ways for people of all races.

Good luck, and God help us all.
Ndelible said…
Great post Liz and the comments will certainly help me when Cam gets older. I remember when I first heard the word - I was in second grade, kinda late it seems compared today. My dad's response was completely inappropriate, "oh, our people are from Ethiopia." Yeah, right dad; not only is that totally not true but completely sidestepped the question!
velvet said…
Wow, that's a tough one. I wonder how I would answer if one of my sons asked me what a "chink" was.

We usually explain the tricky stuff around here by supplying just the bare facts in a neutral manner and letting them mull it over and ask questions from there. They've come up with some fairly surprising conclusions of their own.
Anonymous said…
Liz, you did a great job of answering the question. In one post, I've learned so much about parenting.
Kate said…
My husband is stealing my thoughts! I was reading through the comments before posting mine and saw Jon's first response. I thought, okay, "but what about when black people use it to describe each other?" and he asked about that too. So there you have it; inquiring (white) minds want to know.
I just reread all the comments because this issue interests me deeply, and would like to ammend something I said which sounds stupid - the part about some people not being taught that it's wrong to dislike someone because of his skin color, etc.

This implies that in our natural state, human beings do have such feelings about each other. I don't believe that. What I believe is that people who do have been taught to feel that way.

Racist parents raise racist children. It is almost unprecedented for someone trained to hate to be able to think for himself and make other choices.

When we are very young, our parents are godlike. We have total trust in them, and try to emulate their world view.

So it is truly a waste of human life to dirty impressionable young minds and souls with hatred. it also severely limits such children's experiences in the world by cutting them off from anyone who looks different, which serves no one.
Liz Dwyer said…
Hey Everybody, So sorry to be MIA for a couple of days but I couldn't get into my blog and respond to comments. I'll spare you the long, boring technology story. Anyway...

Good question. I haven't gotten that far in the conversation with my son. Given his age, I'd have to find an age appropriate way of telling him that there are alot of confused people in our world, and that just because someone tells him it's ok for black people to say it to each other, doesn't mean that's the case. AND, I'd tell him that his grandmas and his aunties don't use that word. In fact, that that was not a word that was said in the black community when I was growing up...unless you wanted to get popped in your lip.

I'd probably tell him some of my thoughts about materialistic-driven decision making at corporations, and how record company executives figured out that negative images of black people sell to the mostly young white male audience buying rap records. That essentially, what we see in the music business is the prostitution of art. (Although, I'd have to come up with a different word because I'm not about to have him ask me, "What's prostitution?"

I could talk to him about internalized oppression, how if someone says something about you enough times, you start to believe it, and how some people will say the n-word is a term of endearment, but not in our house. And, I can imagine telling him that some people believe that black folks have the right to use the word, in the same way you talk about your momma. I can talk about my mom, but if you talk about my mom, that's not ok.

But, ultimately, I'd tell him that as people, we're good at coming up with justifications for doing the wrong thing, and if you have to justify your behavior that much, it's probably wrong.

Yeah, I think more and more that it's better to get in front of something instead of letting others give info to your kids. I feel like a PR person saying that, but the world has it's own propaganda (Grow up and get drunk and act like a ho on MTV's Real World) and I definitely have mine.

So, there's the answers I gave to Jon above, but I'm thinking more and more about how with black men in particular, when I see folks greeting each other, there is a definite usage of the word, and there's that little boy desire to want to be a man, to be a big boy. Hmm.

Oh that made me laugh! I'm sure he's going to be after more details eventually. Thinking through this now on the macro level is going to really help me when he wants micro-level information.

I really like your point about making sure to tell him about black folks who are doing amazing things. It's so important and we don't see enough of it and I don't think I do enough of that. And, although he's so sweet and gentle that I can't imagine him fighting, I think it's a good point to remind him to avoid that. I know for sure that my youngest has a more aggressive nature and that no fighting chat will have to be had in the future.

That is too funny! I don't know why your dad's response is making me laugh so hard. That's really funny though. I've heard that when I was three I tried to choke a girl twice my size because she called me the n-word. I don't remember that, but my brother and sister do.

I just found myself thinking about how it is that folks can grow up in homes where racist terms are used to describe other people, but they still know that it's wrong and are able to distance themselves from what they're raised in. I suppose it must be the power of the human spirit.

Why thank you! I think we parents/future parents have to help each other out as much as we can. Thank goodness for the internet and for blogs...if I didn't have this blog, how could I get everyone's thoughts? :)

LOL! See, your great minds think alike! You probably already read my response to Jon above, but I just started thinking about a couple of additional things. One is how in South Africa, the apartheid system was designed so that there was not only physical segregation and legal injustice, but there was also a mental/psychological component as well. I once read how the white South African's wanted to be sure that there would not be a revolt, especially since they were outnumbered so extensively, and the best way to do that was to make the black African's believe certain things and keep them in conditions that would ensure that they would internalize the oppression they were going through. It's why it's not so easy to just say, "Ok, you're free, now go be successful!"

The same kinds of things happened here in the US with slavery. It's why you'd have black folks working with slave catchers back in the day. Without a doubt, black Americans have internalized negative, racist views of ourselves and it's a constant struggle to move past those things. I think that's why it's especially important to be very loving and encouraging to black people in this country. I don't think our society as a whole is there yet but I think we can each be that way in our own personal lives.

See, this is why you are indeed the "Heart" in San Francisco. I totally understood what you meant. I agree that we are taught our racist attitudes. You put a bunch of toddlers from different racial backgrounds in a room together, they're all going to play with each other. You put a bunch of adults from those same backgrounds in a room...well, then there's all this other learned crap that has to be cleansed from the heart so that folks can interact fully with each other.

As parents, we can model this for our children. I think we all have a responsibility to look at our friends in our own personal circles and see if there's a diversity of folks there. If not, it's good for us to ask why not.
1969 said…
As a mom, I have learned to answer all questions as honestly as possible. I am trying to establish a pattern of "you can come to me and ask me anything".

I would start by explaining that black people were brought to this country as slaves. We didn't always have the lifestyle that we have now. Many of us were "owned" by white people. I would explain what the word meant, why it is NOT a good word to call someone or to be called. (A good time to bring up why when you hear it in music, it's still not a good thing).

Lastly, explain how black people have overcome obstacles to get where we are today. That the world is striving for peace between all people. Etc....

Good luck.
Liz Dwyer said…
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. I really appreciate it. I want my boys to be able to ask me anything as well. I don't want them keeping negative kinds of secrets and then springing something crazy on me in the future. All in all, I think the conversation went pretty well and it made me feel eager to keep talking to him about these things as he gets older.
West said…
"It's a mean word that some people say to Black people. Some people who say it aren't trying to be mean, but it's still not a good thing to say. At all.

Think about that for a little while. If you have any more questions, we can talk about it some more, later."

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