“Why’d You Give That N***** Your Eraser?”: When Your 10-Year-Old Is Called Racial Slurs at School

“Why’d you give that n***** your eraser?” 

I send my two sons to school to learn, not so that they can be called racial slurs. But on Wednesday, a boy in 10-year-old Mr. O’s fifth grade class decided to make sure that the classroom was an extra welcoming learning environment. He posed the above question to another student, after that kid decided to give my son an eraser.   

My son told me about it when I went to pick him up from his after school program and of course I was angry and upset, but I also felt numb. I am the mother of two black males in the United States. That means this is not the first time my boys have been called a racial slur. 

I could write about how we are not post-racial and this is exhibit A of why I believe that racism is still America's most vital and challenging issue. But it came to me that there's something powerful about letting children--the most innocent of us all--share what it feels like to be called the n-word in class. 

Last night I asked the boys if they'd like to talk about the racial slurs they've been called, and how it makes them feel. They were excited to share--we all know it's cathartic to be able to share something painful that's happened--and I'm glad that they know that they don't have to keep the racism they face a secret or act like it's not a big deal--or that it's something they have to be ashamed of. 

I filmed this interview with my boys before they went to sleep and in it Mr. T, my eight-year-old details being called an African bitch at school, and he talks about the first time he remembers being called the n-word. Mr. O talked about this most recent incident in his school, and then both boys talked about how it feels to know that when kids say these things, you still have to be in the classroom with them and what they think schools should do.

I have cried every time I watch the six minutes of this clip. It hurts like nothing else to know that children think it's OK to call other children dehumanizing names that are steeped in the sickness of this nation's racism. 


They are so adorable, smart, and articulate. I love how Mr. T does the talking: "I think he called him that because he didn't know how offensive it would be to a black person." You see Mr. T articulate and Mr. O feel it so strongly. As Mr. T talks, Mr O looks sadder and sadder as he drops deeper and deeper into the couch.

Powerful video, Liz. Thanks for sharing.
Mocha said…
I was waiting for you to post this after you mentioned it and I didn't think I could learn anything new about racism (because? yawn. I am so OVER it.) but your kids really did me in. Hug them for me, please?
Anne said…
I'm sorry Los Angelista. That makes me sad. Your children are so beautiful, articulate, and sensitive. I never want them to experience the pain that comes from racism. They are so intelligent diagnosing what might help to decrease racism, and what is unlikely to help. I love hearing them come up with potential solutions. It will be amazing to see the men that they become.
Phyllis said…
Pretty brave, your sons. That's no small deal to put yourself out there like that. May their words and faces cut through any layers of denial that might still be enveloping people.
Erin said…
This just wrecked me. I don't want them to have to go through this. I don't want any child to have to think about these heavy things at such young ages. But...this is LIFE. Recently, my son came home and repeated a joke a friend told him. Turns out he didn't understand it, didn't know why it was funny, and then realized (upon my gasp) that is was racist. He broke down into tears. He sobbed. And sobbed. He had no idea and then when he DID have an idea, he was beside himself with having laughed. We're going to watch this tonight, together, and talk about it. And I hope to GOD as your boys continue to be LEADERS in their class and community - educating their peers and others about race- that my child will follow suit. Our kids can do this, together. Just like we can, together. We need to make them fearless in discussing it, just like we can be on our blogs. And let it take a life of it's own and grow. Please, hug those boys for me too. THey are brave young men and if I could I shield yours and mine from any of this pain and ugly if I had it in my power.

And you, dear Mamma, you are raising some remarkable boys. I'm honored to know you.
kass hall said…
I was pointed to your post today on Twitter.

Your sons are smart, intelligent and beautiful (seriously beautiful boys - bound to break some hearts!). The treatment they have received is abhorrent. I am so sorry they have been exposed to such hate.

You're obviously an awesome Mum and your boys are testament to that. Keep up the great work.
Anonymous said…
This video is so important to share. There's so much racism and it needs to be continually addressed, lest we overestimate any progress we're making in the world. Your sons are so wise, bright and beautiful & I hope by you honouring their feelings that it brings them some healing. You're an amazing Mother. CymbelineS
Jenny Grace said…
This had me in tears. I'm so proud of your boys. I ache for my own son.
Karen said…
Thank you for posting this. Your are an amazing woman and mother. Yours boys are bright, beautiful thinkers who will help heal our world.
alexandra said…
In sharing their feelings, I hope your sons find that their voices have power. That their words can make a difference. You must be very proud of them - they are wise beyond their years.
Annie said…
Amazing video. Your boys are beautiful, smart, and will be game changers. They will make a difference. You must be proud.
Kim Moldofsky said…
Aaaaand now the sound isn't work on my computer, but based on what I now about your and what I'm reading in the comments, I need to come back and watch this video.

I'm so sorry for what your children have to face.
Call Family said…
Mr. O and Mr. T certainly have their thoughts about this! And I applaude you for giving them a public voice for this in hope that it will reach others who may meet similar cirumstances. We can't shelter our children from the world however cruel it may be, but we can arm them with the tools of critical thought and knowledge as you have certainly done- love you mama.
Sarah Auerswald said…
Mr. T is such an old soul! He's so wise! And your sons are so wonderful and strong! I'm so sorry they're having to live with this.
Sundry said…
So sad and moving. Good for you for asking and listening to your kids. Your care empowers them.
Mindy said…
I'm speechless. I think u and your boys are brave and beautiful... Inside and out. (Hugs)
Liz Dwyer said…
Thanks for saying so. Yeah, it really broke my heart to see O physically retreating. :(

Yeah, I know what you mean. It's like, sigh. THIS again. But they make me realize I can't think like that because that's when it's most insidious. I'll definitely hug them. xo's.

Thanks for saying so. I don't think that I could've articulated the things that they do at the same ages. And I am also very interested in who they will end up being. It really intrigues me. :)

I agree, they are very brave. I wasn't sure what they'd say, but I sensed that they had a LOT that they needed to say about the subject.

Oh gosh, thanks for saying all this, and for sharing that story about your son. I'm so glad that you're going to watch this with him and talk about it with him because I'm sure he has some ideas about how kids their age can fix this. They can become leaders--they don't have to wait for us adults to get it together. And, absolutely, we have to help them be fearless about discussing it. I find so many adults that don't want to talk about this kind of stuff or are so defensive and insist that it's other people, not them, so I'm glad that the kids can be the agents of change--and make more progress toward race unity than there is now.
Liz Dwyer said…
Kass Hall,
Thanks for coming to visit my site. What I keep thinking about is that there are so many other kids that this happens to every day. In L.A. schools, black students have the lowest test scores at most schools--I'm sure racism like this on campus is a factor. If you know you're gonna be called names, you're not gonna want to be there. Anyway, thanks for coming to visit and yeah, I have to agree...the genetic gods have blessed them. ;)

Hugs, Cymbeline and thank you for saying that.

Jenny Grace,
Yes, I ache for all our children--for the other kids in my son's class that heard the boy call my son the name, for the boy who did it. They're all being affected.

I'm glad that I posted it. Really glad. Thanks for being so kind and saying that.

Yes, I want them to know that they don't have to act like being called racist names doesn't affect them or hurt--it does and it's OK to admit it.

I am proud of them. I don't think I could articulate what they can when I was their age--I just wish they didn't have to think about this stuff at all.

My sound is acting up on my computer too! Thanks for watching it.

You're right, we sure can't shelter them from the world. It is all about giving them the tools. love you too.
Liz Dwyer said…
He really is. He's always been like this and it really fascinates me. Where does it come from? Thanks for reading.

It is sad, and that makes me doubly glad I asked them to talk about it. They are sad, too and they need to express it.

Hugs to you, too.
Anonymous said…
Your sons are amazing! Such poise and so articulate at such a young age. I am so sorry that they have faced such horrible racism. It breaks my heart that children are subjected to such hateful treatment- my daughter isn't even 2 and has been called that hateful word and yes, mama bear steps in ready to rip idiots a new one but it never ceases to amaze me how cruel and inhumane people can be! hugs!!!!
Campey1986 said…
Such articulate, smart, handsome, well spoken young men. I am so proud of them for doing this video and for being strong about the things they have to go through as young, black men in an America that is still racist. Black people all face racism in their life, but black males get it worse. And having to deal with it at their young ages is just sad. And too hear those kind of hurtful words from people who are the same age as them, and who are supposed to be their friends and classmates is unfathomable. I hate that they even have to go through what they are going through. Even though they are going through this, they will come out all the stronger for it. Unfortunately, older racists are raising young racists, so I love your and your children's idea about having something in schools that will educate children that calling someone those kinds of names is not okay, and is very hurtful. They are so lucky to have you as their mom. :)
Lonnie wilson said…
My little Brothers you are beyond smart and you handle tough issues with an openness that is powerful!
Now for that word, ignorance come in all colors but some people have tried for century's to make Blackness bad or seem demeaning! Its their issue cause Africa is the cradle of life and before any man stood, a Black man did be proud of your Blackness you are the first man, and because of this you must teach the world to love, even when they dont know how!!
Logical Libby said…
Your boys are remarkable. And you are remarkable to let them talk about it rather than just getting angry, or trying to cover it up and pretend it didn't happen.

I am stunned that they have to deal with this, even though I know it exists.
b. said…
I was born and raised in eastern NC and I didn't see this craziness as often! Mind you, it was there, but not like this. Oh my word. (Black woman here.)

What I really REALLY appreciate about this video and past posts about your sons is the fact that you and your husband have given them tools to respond correctly (tell the teacher and mom, do not retaliate aggressively). Your guys are wonderful.

Question: do they have consistent positive interaction with kids of other ethnicities? I assume they do but I am asking b/c I would hate for these situations to shape their views of larger groups of people.
Liz Dwyer said…
So sorry that your little girl has also been called the n-word. There's so much of this in our world but everyone wants to front like post-racial here. Sigh.

Thanks for the generous compliments. I think I'm lucky to be their mom. And, totally agree, we pass the racism along to the younger generation--as angry as it makes me that my sons are going through this, I have a lot of empathy for the other children. We've all failed them, too.

Lonnie Wilson,
Thanks for saying that, Lonnie. It disturbs me a lot that in the previous incident with my youngest, African is used as an insult. Like how when I was a kid, calling somebody black (as in, you black bitch) meant you better be ready to fight.

Logical Libby,
Thank you for saying so. I really believe that much of breaking the cycle of racism is having open, honest, loving conversations about it--and figuring out how we can move toward being united.

b. said,
I think folks are deceived by Los Angeles...and I don't know why. It's home to two of the biggest race riots of the 20th century. That said, I certainly saw more police harassment in Chicago, but I think that's just due to where we live and the LAPD being stretched so thin. Anyway, yes, they do have pretty positive interactions with kids from diverse backgrounds--and their friends are white, black, biracial, Latino -- no Asian kids tho and that concerns me. Not like they need a token Asian friend, but I do wonder about that.
Anonymous said…
Hi, I am from England, Great Britain which isn't so great when it comes to things of this nature. Racist language is part of our national heritage/culture and I suggest this is probably so in the magnificent USA. The media and ruling elite, the powers that be, are happy to maintain the status quo and are the fuel that pumps this global subliminal message 24/7.
Your two boys are like sweet angels, warning the world of its impending doom, how we are going backwards and not progressing, how nothing has changed and how ultimately many people have sold out or opted out of the equality struggle! Does money and fame equal equality?
Shame on the silent celebrities and black champions for not being seen to be challenging racist actions and behaviour.
Perhaps you should send the video to Oprah Winfrey or someone influential who could start a national debate and proactive campaign? In times of global recession priorities change and people think that they can start blaming others and then old behaviours are then deemed acceptable and are allowed back in and become excusable again?
Lets blame the foreigners, lets blame immigration, lets blame the blacks. It starts with name calling becoming acceptable again.
The message that those two beautiful angels, (Mr O and Mr T) are telling us is a global warning and one that we must heed. It seems like people are more bothered about trivial things than real things like racism, come on rappers and hip hop divas, wheres all the powerful protest rap songs? Or is it all just about the bling now? Or should I say the Benjamins? Lol!
Liz, I wish there were more people like you leading the struggle. Carnt you and your sons make a rap video? It might make number one and then you could go into the schools across the USA raising awareness around racism!
Thank you so very much for putting together a very powerful piece of media.
Liz Dwyer said…
So sorry I'm just seeing your comment. You are too kind to say such nice things about my boys. Such a good point about the lack of socially conscious songs--at least ones in the mainstream. I love my dance music and Depeche Mode but I often wonder, who is the modern Public Enemy? Is there even one? I wish Oprah would tackle this issue directly. I don't think people really understand what it's like for our children and Oprah could certainly help them understand that this is real.
Anonymous said…
Thanks very much for this video. I'm gonna pass it around to others, and I hope you can post more in the future about how you and your family address Mr. T's reservations RE: 'I'm not African,' and questions concerning ethnicity vs. nationality. They're often very difficult concepts for many adults to digest, let alone kids. You seem to have such a light, careful, and conscientious touch with your boys that I'm sure reading about your tactics for addressing those tough questions will be instructive for others.

Thanks again for the great post.
heather said…
Don't know your blog but your post was excerpted on another adoption blog. This is heartbreaking but also heartwarming because you have two of the most thoughtful, articulate, self-aware boys I've ever seen. As sad as it makes me to see that they must live through this, I have no doubt that they will navigate these waters with moral fortitude and courage. thank you for posting, and for teaching your sons to truly think the nature and implications of racism, not just parrot what others say about it.
Karin said…
Your boys are so articulate and empathetic, especially to be able to understand both the reasons one might use offensive language as well as why it's not ok. I remember being in the second grade and being called Japan Girl... No curse words, but it still hurt. It's so hard for even grown ups to understand these things. Also, I like how you talk to them like adults, thanking them for their time and asking guiding questions, allowing them to talk and think. You all look like a great family. I have faith that things will improve if only we keep sharing the live and empathy and real feelings in this video!!

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