How Many More Times Must My 7-Year-Old be Called the N-Word?

It's Saint Patrick's Day, which means I rocked it like this...
However, despite my admittedly hardcore Irish pride, my mind these days is on blackness. Specifically, how much I appreciate that black people have come so far despite racist pin-pricks, shank-stabbings and butcher knives in the back. I believe being black is both a gift and a sacred responsibility. Yet, it's undeniable that not everyone in our world feels the same--and sometimes, they're not shy about showing it.

I've spent the past two days thinking about an incident that happened Tuesday night at my local park. I'd planned to take 10-year-old Mr. O to get a haircut, but by the time I left work (late), and picked up him and his 7-year-old little brother, Mr. T, I realized we wouldn't get to the barber on time. BUT, thanks to the time change, it's light outside till well past 7 p.m., so I came up with a fun alternative: heading to our neighborhood park.

The boys were thrilled to swing and jump off the playground equipment--everything was all good, till Mr. T came running over to me, his brows drawn together in a worried scowl.

"That little boy over there in the blue shirt," he said as he pointed to a kid who was probably 5 or 6-years-old, "is saying bad words and telling me to shut up."

These days it's par for the course to hear young children swearing like they're on an episode of the Jersey Shore, so I told T to just ignore the kid and play on the other side of the playground.

Five minutes later he was back and shaking with outrage. "That kid won't leave me alone. He told me to shut my trap AND he called me the n-word."

It's sad that at 7, my son has already been called the n-word as many times as he has. But every time it happens, my blood just boils. It makes me want to open up a can of whoop ass on his behalf. But since T was looking at me like, "Hey, mature adult? Go fix it!" I reassured him that there's nothing wrong with him. "Well, clearly that little boy has ISSUES! I'll let his mom or dad know," and then set off to track down the boy's parent.

"Young man, is your mom or dad here?" I asked. The boy replied by pointing to two women standing a bit away from the playground. I wasn't sure which one was the mom, but I prepped myself for confrontation by installing the most friendly, placid look on my face that I could muster. As I drew nearer, I took in the drawn-on-with-black-eyeliner, pencil-thin eyebrows, the neck tattoos and the dark lipstick with much lighter lip liner. Great. Just great.

"Excuse me ladies," I began, "Is one of you the parent of that little boy in the blue shirt over there?" I kept my tone neutral, like I was about to say, aww, he just lost his LEGO action figure. One of them stared me down and muttered, "Yeah, that's my son."

"OK, well, I'm sorry to have to tell you this but he just told my son to shut his trap and then called him the n-word."

With the bomb dropped, I expected maybe some defensiveness in her response--after all, what parent is going to be psyched about hearing their child called another kid the n-word? However, what I didn't anticipate was the narrowing of her eyes, the aggressive change in her posture and her response. "Well, maybe your son IS one."

The words were said slowly, deliberately, and with a hint of a challenge. She might as well have replied, "Yeah, you black bitch. What are you and your little n-word son gonna do about it?"

It instantly took me to that level of anger where you say to yourself, damn the consequences. I'm gonna beat this heffa's ass. Except...I took in the tattoos, how her friend's hands had moved to her pockets, how their posture was completely one of planning to jump ME! And then I remembered, hey, I'm a grown woman and I don't get into fights, especially not with hoodrats...and my kids are 50 feet away. So, without saying anything else to her, I turned and walked away.

Mr. T asked me what she'd said and I lied to him. "Oh, she was so upset. She's gonna take away his Nintendo DS for a month." I just couldn't tell him that there would be no consequences for this child's racism.

I told the boys it was time to go home, and overheard T triumphantly telling his brother, "And mom went over there and told on him and made sure his mom punished him!"

And that's when I began to feel like a failure. Like I should've made sure that mom punished her son. Or, if not, at least I should've told her, no, my son isn't a n-word. But, I was afraid.

Once home, I headed to the bathroom, completely depressed. I shut the door and sat in there, tears rolling down my cheeks. I didn't want my sons to see me cry, didn't want to hear them asking, "Mommy, what's wrong?"

I felt like, wow, I should've done more, said more. Yes, I know that nothing I could've said to her would have made a difference. Nothing would have made her have an epiphany and realize, "You're so right. Your son isn't a n-word. That was totally wrong to say he is one."

As I sat in that bathroom, it also hit me, wow, my kid is only 7. How much more of this ish is coming our way? How many more years of kids calling him the n-word? How many more years of both subtle and overt racism will we just have to turn the other cheek on and walk away from? There will probably never be a year in his childhood or youth when he won't be affected by racism. I don't know how I will not go crazy. How have generations of black moms and dads not simply gone nuts knowing what's coming for their kids?

I am raising two black males in Los Angeles in the 21st century. No, they aren't getting treated like Emmett Till, but that doesn't make the things that happen to them--the things that are said to them--any better. I'm sick of it, sick of people being racist and then when you bring it to their attention, they blame YOU for it and act like YOU are the problem.

I many more times must my child be called the n-word? How many more times will I have to hear him say, as he had in some instances, "I kinda got the feeling that they were being mean to me because I'm black." And, what can I do--what can we all do--about it?


Unknown said…
You are the best mom in the world!

Thanks for the reminder of how much work there is to do. When I dry my eyes I'll get back to work.
diane said…
Really, I lack the words for what I feel reading this. Complete disgust.

Kudos for handling this the way you did, you are a super mom!
iquillabit said…
wow. Your frustration feels so palpable. It's shocking and troubling that the boy's racism was so vocal and unapologetic. Maybe this should be seen as a chance for parents of all races to think about what their kids hear on the playground and structure a positive influence somehow--an open dialogue--proatively rather than reactively. I'm not a parent, but I have been in your position of witnessing someone else's brash racism and felt guilty about not being effective enough in my response. I've realized that sometimes it's hard to combat irrational fear by confronting the people who are standing in front of you. Not that we shouldn't try; but it's clear sometimes when you're punching ghosts. Some people are plain crazy. That's a fact. However, talking to those who ARE receptive and empowering them to do something about it IS a response. Parents who are sane and reasonable can help their children be the ones to understand and recognize racism when they see it, stand up and say "not cool" or provide some other form of support for each other. I think that sometimes that's more powerful than anything else. What if that kid realized that most kids in his social sphere--of all colors--thought poorly of his attitude and behavior? I think there would be fewer moms stomping onto the playground to face those awful moments. I hope parents will sit up and take note. Thanks for sharing to open up this discussion.
Lisa Blah Blah said…
Oh, honey. You made me cry just reading this.

You did the right thing. You confronted the problem. Was it worth it to have your sons witness a violent, racially charged altercation? No, so you walked away. You protected them. I'm so, so sorry it had to be at the expense of your own heart. I don't even know what esle to say, I'm sitting here shaking with anger myself.

LA Mama said…
I am so sorry.

We moved to LA recently, and one of our children is African-American. So far we have encountered nothing but pleasantness from everyone, but that doesn't mean I don't fear for the future. Thank you so much for this post, as difficult as it must have been to write it.
Cynthia said…
Don’t judge me for saying this, but I feel more sorry for the kid that called your son the “N” word, than I do for Mr. T. Why, because I am sure in comparison to Mr. T, you have instilled moral values that encompass compassion and respect for other people. This is a trait that will take him far, and make him a much better person for it. In my mind I see 2 different futures for these kids. One of possible prison time, neck tattoos, gang violence and a never ending spiral of hatred passed on from child to child, as for the other life I see success, positive leadership, pride, and admiration. Kids learn by example. You may think you have failed by walking away, but I think you succeeded. By approaching this so called “mother” you taught your son to stand up for what you think is right but walking away was more important, because you showed him who was a better person for it. So I say you won that fight because when you walked away you went to a home were its foundation is built with compassion, pride, respect, and love; a home in which I am sure is guaranteed not to crumble. I am not as certain about the other one. 8-9 years from now, her parenting skills will really come to fruition.
I agree with Cynthia. Given his mother's reaction, the kid's future is not looking very bright. You can imagine what kind of values she's teaching him at home.

You did the right thing by walking away. She was not a reasonable person.
Vasilly said…
I am so angry and hurt and frustrated after reading your post. You did the right thing by walking away from that "mom" and not getting into a fight in front of your son.

It's sad that in this day and age, people are still teaching their children the worst lessons of humanity. As an African American mom with two boys, this situation is something I fear happening too. I think Cynthia is right. In a few years every lesson that other child has learned about life from his mom will come out in the worst way. It's already starting to.
scooping it up said…
Wow. That is disgusting. I am so sad for you, your sweet boy, and would love to slap that woman for you.

As mother of an african american boy, I worry that when he's no longer a cute, toddling chubby drooling smiling bundle, he will become threatening to the white people around him.

I worry about how to react when people say "You're just being oversensitive."

How do I tell my well-intentioned family and friends about T's feelings: sometimes you can just feel it. it's not being oversensitive. and sometimes you can't change people's minds.

thank you for sharing this. and for walking away. i hope i can be that brave.
Anika said…
Oh man, I can't even imagine and yet I know, I *know* that I'll have to go through the same things with my kids. I think you handled it well, because didn't need to get into a fight in front of your kids.

But those women...they are the true problem and like so many, there's a chance that little boy will grow up and realize how totally ignorant his mother is and leave her alone with her hate.
Jen said…
I am so very sorry for your and your children's experience. My son is African, and when he came home we lived in Texas. Oh my, a white family with a black child -- in the South?? That's hardcore, let me tell you! I think you handled the situation beautifully and with grace. Although I understand the urge to make that mother understand the gross error of her and her son's ways, you are absolutely correct -- nothing you could have said would have made a lick of difference. And, after having been a police officer for ten years, I can tell you with all certainty that you made the right decision to walk away; your children need their mother. No principled conversation is worth that. I have shed the same helpless, shameful tears in my bathroom!

After many, many racist comments hurled in our direction within six months of our son's homecoming, we packed up and moved to the tolerant bliss of the pacific northwest. Cut and run? Maybe, but my child is accepted and nurtured by our multiracial, accepting community and I no longer have to explain HUGE issues like racism to his older siblings until they are emotionally ready to deal with it. Hang in there -- you are rockin' it!
Ms Angela said…

I'm sure it has been Divine Providence that when I was raising my kids, I never encountered a situation like this. It's not that it never happened (it did), but perhaps fortunately it didn't happen anywhere near me. Back then, I wouldn't have thought for a single millisecond about not doing the Angie SMASH on Miss Tattoo.

Liz, I commend you for your calm and dignity. You took the right action.
sweatpantsmom said…
Oh Liz - I'm so sorry. But bravo for you for standing up for Mr. T - the important thing is he saw you do it. You are such a great mom.

I don't blame you for walking away - no need to go down that path, it wouldn't have done anyone any good and may have had a bad outcome.

We have a long way to go, don't we?

(This subject must have been heavy on both our minds last night - I posted about it today, too. Sad that it's even an issue.)
Wow - I am stunned. STUNNED. I know kids parrot ridiculous and racist things but for the mother to not even feign some shock? To just acknowledge that the n-word is a part of their vocabulary? What kind of evil lives in that space?

You exhibited a lot of self control and you did the right thing. Obviously this mom is trash to teach a child such things and then back it up. Lord knows how an altercation could have ended.

I'm so sorry. How painful. I am boiling just reading this, I can't imagine how it must have felt for you.
nick said…
Given they looked like they were planning to jump you and given they weren't the least bit apologetic, I think you did the right thing to walk away. What else could you do? As you say, you didn't see the point of getting into a fight over it. Some people are just too far gone to change.
Kyla said…
I'm so angry right now. Sad. Crying. Ashamed to be a white person.
I wish I could apologize for all the stupid white bigots out there, but I can't. And it wouldn't stop this horrible behavior anyway, would it?
You are an amazing mother and an awesome human being. Your kids will grow up to be loving and tolerant people because of you, even in the face of ignorance and hate. God bless you.
Sarah Auerswald said…
This is so depressing and enraging - and frightening! I am so glad you walked away when you did - that woman sounded really scary! And so ignorant and angry and raising an ignorant, angry kid! Yikes!

I have to say this - you were NOT a failure to your sons: you stood up for them. They watched you do that and that was a victory. You can't control the heffas of the world, but your sons watched you stand up to hate - and that's an amazing lesson to have taught them.

I am proud to know such a brave mom.
I think you handled it in the best way possible. I surely would have lost my mind and gave that woman a tongue lashing she'd never forget.

I feel really hurt for your son having to endure such hatred at a young age.

You mentioned something about black parents raising black children. It's something I've been thinking about and how much of a burden it still is for black parents nowadays. I'm in my late 20s, so I'm around the age where I am thinking about settling down and possibly having children. I've thought about if I even have children whether I would be equipped to prepare them--and shield them--from the hatred and resentment that's out there. It makes me wonder what my parents wrestled with when they were raising me.
Unknown said…

Sending love and strength ....
Donna said…
I cannot wrap my mind around this. I don't know if I would have had the presence of mind to handle it as well as you did, Liz.
Liz Dwyer said…
Hi All,
Thank you SO much for your's good to know that conscious, empathetic people are out there in this world. It gives me hope. I'll do my best to reply individually to your comments this afternoon. In the meantime, I'm running around prepping for the LA Marathon!!!
K. Rock said…
Unbelievable. I totally think you did the right thing though. Saying more to her and gettingto a fight would have only made things way worse. I ams sorry you and your son had to go through this.

Hope your marathon was great though!
21st Century racism, unfortunately, lives on. Where is the love? Remember the Dionne Warwick song of that title. What is needed is love for the Creator of us all. Some people of every race choose to hate. It is as simple as that... The sad fact is that they plant the seeds of hate even in their own children. I do believe in divine justice for all those who choose to ignore sin in their lives. I am not perfect, but I am working on my issues. There are people who like "being racist," and proudly profess "superiority"? The Bible that I read everyday says that, "Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall." (Proverbs 16:18) Let's hope that people can learn that lesson before we all sink together in the American lifeboat.
Nerd Girl said…

I'm so sorry that your son had to go through this. And that this won't be the last time.

It hurts my heart to know that our children are still subject to being called ugly names because of the color of their skin.

You did good. You kept your wits about you, you didn't let an ugly situation get any uglier and you went home with your family. Good job Liz. Good job.
BlackLiterature said…
As I read this, I felt the tears well and my face and neck heat up.

I have no words. You showed great restraint and maturity. Your sons are lucky to have you as an example.

I would feel sorry for the boy in the blue shirt, but I can't. If he follows his example, he'll be a miserable human being. I hope not.
Baiskeli said…
Oh wow!

Holy cow, that really sucks! I think you handled it great.

I didn't grow up in the U.S, so I never got called the N word until I was 18 years old when I came to the U.S. And even then, the word stung. And I got called it a number of times, the most recently ironically on my birthday about 5 years ago by 2 white guys who were offended that I was walking hand in hand with my then fiancee (now wife) who is white. And this is in Cambrige/Somerville (outskirts of Boston) just for those people who think this only happens in the South. In that case, I had this rush of red-hot rage before realizing that answering a challenge to a fight with 2 'townies' was not a smart move. I had everything to lose, they didn't.

The most important thing is that you have his back. This doesn't mean throwing down with idiots, but it does mean protecting him (which you did) and reassuring him (which you did). I'm dreading this type of situations when we have kid(s).
gibber said…
Oh Liz. As I read this, my heartrate went up, tears stung my eyes, and I got hot. I applaud you LOUDLY for having the presence of mind to walk away. As many others have said, it's clear that nothing you would have said would have changed her mind or resulted in anything positive. Even if it would have temporarily made you feel better. I suppose this is just one of the many sacrifices/choices you have to make as a parent, and your kids are BLESSED to have you.

Sigh. What do you do in the face of such racism? I don't know. I feel sorry for that boy. But I do know kids with really racist parents who grow up to be tolerant, loving beings. Maybe he'll go to a diverse school when he gets older and see there is a bigger world than the racist one his ignorant mom built for him. Maybe, maybe not.

What I do know is you did the right thing, and I'm sorry you had to go thru it. I would have cried in the bathroom too.
Tikki said…
Heartbreaking. There is nothing more you should have said to that woman, and you are a great mother.
Francine said…
Wow, that totally made me cry. And start to worry about what my son is in for when he's older. It's clear where he learned to talk like that, and that is a real shame.
Melanie said…
First of all, I applaud your ability to approach the mom, that act takes a big set of ovaries in and of itself.
Second of all, I'm sorry that it didn't go well because I can imagine how filled with rage, sadness and disappointment you must have felt.

There sure is some trash out there. Keeping yourself safe was the right thing to do.
Melanie said…
First of all, it took some big ovaries to even approach that mom. I applaud you for that.

Second of all, I'm so sorry that it didn't go well and for how incredibly sad and filled with rage you must have felt.

There sure is some trash in this world.
Faith said…
Reading up on your posts.
Congrats on completing your latest marathon. You rock!

The posts about the boys saying vagina/pagina was too cute.

My heart broke and I certainly understand your outrage over that racist woman. Take heart that you are raising two very thoughtful young men. For a 5 year old to already be spewing that sort of rage and hatred means his life is gonna suck. He’ll be in prison or have a “come to Jesus” moment and be an anti-racist activist. I don’t see any inbetweens considering who he’s being raised by.

There is a lot of fallout from the Obamas being in the White House and one of them is this uptick in expressed prejudice. Just pray about it and be at peace knowing your boys are being spiritually trained as well. Don’t let the Spirit of Sabotage get the best of you. With a loving husband and great values this should roll off your back. Your family will be fine.
jstele said…
Well, one day, their son is going to run his mouth and deal with the "wrong" person and then, they will see the consequences of their actions and only have themselves to blame. You did the right thing. You did the best that you could in that situation. They are just setting up their son to get attacked in the same way they threatened you. They will see the consequences of their actions and have to deal with it at some point.
Liz Dwyer said…
I really appreciate everybody's comments, and I apologize for not replying to each. It's really nice to read such encouragement, and to know that as isolating as life can be in the big city, there is a community of folks who care about these kinds of things out there. I found myself thinking the other day of my mom, my grandma, my great grandmother (who I still remember)--and I wonder how they didn't go crazy. This kind of thing doesn't happen to my boys every day, thank God. But if it did, would I still be sane? (assuming that I am sane of course, but you know what I mean ;)

peace and love to each of you who are out there in the world working to be a force of unity.
Witchsistah said…
I'll just post what I said on Love Isn't Enough.

I agree with everyone here that you did the RIGHT thing. You preserved your and your child’s physical safety. That wretch of a human being was not only going to be violent with you, she had HELP. In other words, you were outnumbered. You would have gotten beaten up in front of your child and the little Klansman-in-training. The cops probably would have been called and then there’d be the very real possibility that YOU would have been the one hauled off to jail. Those chicks could have White Girled you and pulled out some White Women’s Tears (I’m assuming this refuse was White), made up some bs story about how the “big, evil, Black woman” menaced their child and attacked them, that they were only defending their innocent, delicate selves from the marauding Negress. Unless you had witnesses, preferably White ones, who were willing to back you up, it would have been your word against theirs.

Yeah, I know you felt like crap having to lie to your child. But let’s face it, if we want our kids to have ANY self-esteem and healthy self-image, we cannot be brutally honest with them at all times. Are we really going to tell them that art project they’ve presented to us is hideous as hell? Are we really going to tell them they suck BADLY at something even if it’s the truth?

If I were you, I’d try and befriend the other parents who frequent that park and tell them about your encounter. You may not be the only one who’s witness those folks’ virulent racism. You all could form playgroups so you can be sure your kids are playing with other mentally healthy ones. Yeah, you’d have to exclude the mini-Nazi, but that is a very real, and natural consequence to that sort of behavior. If you’re going to engage in that, then that’s one of the things you’ll just have to suck up.
LaNeia said…
Thank you for sharing this very personal account. As a child, I remember quite clearly being called the “N” word. We lived in a small town in Long Island, New York. It wasn’t particularly diverse, but it wasn’t a homogeneous enclave either. Yet and still, there were numerous times, as a young child, I was called the “N” word by both children and adults. I grew up in the late 70′s early 80′s.

Anyway, I can’t say that it really struck me to the core or changed the way I viewed myself (self-esteem wise).

What it did do is clarify the notion that there is an “us” and a “them” and I became sensitive to situations/places (at a mall, beach, amusement park) where I might be perceived negatively b/c of my race.

If I were going to the beach with my diverse group of teenage friends, I would prepare myself mentally for what we could “potential” face. Not taunts per say, but stares coupled with laughter etc.

Now as an adult, I have been called the “N” word twice that I can remember. Once while working in my yard and a group of White teens + one adult drove by and just randomly yelled out obscenities and once while walking in Mexico – once again, by teens.

I think in general, I’ve come to “expect,” if not assume, that I wont be received well in new situations where I am a minority. That’s really sad for me to say openly, but I’ve come to be OK with that. It seems so normal to feel this way, based on my experiences. What I find NOT OK is when the negative race-based feelings go beyond just staring and into outright injustice (racial profiling, discrimination in the workplace etc.).

That’s when it obviously matters more. But the rest of the foolishness, I’ve learned to just ignore. As far as we’ve come as a nation, I still have that sense that “it is what it is…” and as ugly as it may seem, its also somewhat the norm. I don’t feel defeated by this, but simply prepared. Feeling prepared w/o being consumed by it is 1/2 the battle to me. I hope this makes sense.
Anonymous said…
This just broke my heart. You were definitely the better and bigger person in the situation.
you are the best mom and the world and don't feel bad because you turn the other cheek. Comming from a black person's perspective the world is just fucked up and a lot of things happen to people because of racism and there is nothing you can do about it. Sometimes we wish we would have hit them or fought but i admire you for taking care of your kids.

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