Home > Beautifully Blended, reflections on race > don’t call me out of name

don’t call me out of name

So you can imagine that the recent Imus fiasco was quite a topic of conversation around my house for the last week or so.  Y’all can imagine what I think of him and what he said… but if you can’t, see LaTonya’s blog… she says it better than I probably could. Oprah hosted a town hall on her show today, and that provided a perfect opportunity to get Tyler & Halle involved in the dialogue… to put some substance behind the reasons we don’t listen to certain radio stations that play the raunchier hip hop songs, or why I change the channel when certain popular songs come on the ones we do regularly listen to. The kids and I have had conversations about certain aspect of hip hop culture, and right now I am the authority of all things under the sun in their eyes.  At the same time, I am very aware that they walk in different skin than I do, and there may well be a time where I’m not going to be considered an authority on anything in general, but particularly not anything related to race. I thought there would be a lot of benefit for the kids to see Black men and women of authority address the issue, so I let the kids stay up to watch the show with me.

The show inspired a lot of questions from Halle about the meanings of words (from ho’ to stereotype) and some philosophical and theoretical thoughts and questions from Tyler.  We talked about how women are portrayed in media, as well as how black men and women specifically are portrayed.

I found it very telling when I asked the kids,

“When you see black women on TV, do they look like Oprah or these other women you see now?

Halle:  NO!!!!

Tyler:  Uh uh… they’re in their underwear… stripping.

I could definitely see that the discussion about referring to any women (mothers, daughters, sisters) as a ho had hit it’s mark, not that I thought it would be difficult since neither of them are prone to name calling.  But with Tyler, there is the added question of the N-word.  Where it’s easy to impress upon them the insult that words like “bitch” or “ho” imply, already some of his friends are dropping the n-word like members of a special club.  

A few months ago I was watching Bastards of the Party, which was an incredibly enlightening documentary.  In it, there is a call to stop defining children into a gang culture by calling them “Little G” and other gangsta nicknames from birth.  Call them by their given names, he says.  This is what ended any ambivalence I’d had about the discomfort I feel when I hear my children “code switch.”  There was a part of me that felt as though I would be denying them something, somehow… I wanted them to feel comfortable with whatever crowd they found themselves in.  But by allowing ghetto talk, would I be allowing them an aspect of their culture or just ensuring they’d get a ghetto pass?

Since then, I’ve made it a point to talk with the kids about slang and (in their words) “ghetto talk” but I hadn’t directly addressed the n-word.

I’ve told them that they can choose whatever linquistic patterns they want when talking with their friends… but I am not their friend, I am their mother, so when they address me, or any other person to whom respect should be shown, they are to do so in standard English. Borrowing from something Mayor Cory Booker said as a guest on Oprah (I’m telling you, that woman is my link to the outside world),

Yours is the language of heroes and freedom fighters like Martin Luther King, WEB Dubois, Frederick Douglas, and Barak Obama…

I probably should have added Mayor Booker since I was paraphrasing him… note to self.

Your language is NOT the language of Eminem & Tupac Shakur.

Tyler did a double take…

YOU know Tupac Shakur?

Child, please! I’ve known about Tupac longer than I’ve known about you.

sorry, sidetracked.  Back to the story.

I was speaking with Arria the other day, before the whole Imus incident, about her nephew, Ransom.  I mentioned the comments from Bastards of the Party and she relayed to me some trivia I haven’t verified, but it’s certainly plausible.  In the years after slavery ended, it was common for Black men to be given birth names such as “Gentleman” or “Sir” or “Mister” to force Whites to address them respectfully.  She cited The Color Purple as an example… Celie calls her husband Mister because that was his given name. We both lamented the shift from giving children names that demanded respect to giving children names that will look better on a prison wall than on a resume.

Tonight on Oprah, Jason Whitlock reinforced the decrease in my concern about how much concern I should have as to whether or not Tyler and Halle can drop R’s like hotcakes…

“We’ve allowed our kids to adopt a hip-hop culture that’s been perverted and corrupted by prison values. They are defining our women in pop culture as bitches and hos. … We are defining ourselves. Then, we get upset and want to hold Don Imus to a higher standard than we hold ourselves to. That is unacceptable.”“In the history of mankind, no one has ever received more respect than they’re willing to give themselves,”

So Tyler and I talked for about another half hour in his room about how his friends use the N-word.  I told him reasons some people think it’s OK for two people of a certain race or background to use it with each other in a friendly way, and gave him the list of reasons I disagree.  He indicated he’d never used the word before and never would… and said he should tell his friends they should stop using the word.  I told him he should probably tread lightly there… kids don’t like to be told what to do, and since it’s seen as cool, he would probably experience some resistance or rejection if he pushed it.  I suggested that instead, he think of some ways he could respond if someone addressed him (or another person) that way, that might make people think about what they’re saying and why.  Kinda like the ways we’ve talked about him using when he needs to say no to drugs.

And that’s what’s got me out of bed at 12:30 in the morning… I can’t sleep with all these “just say no” thoughts in my brain.

  1. Bob Roberts
    August 24, 2011 at 11:33 AM

    Giving a child a name like “Mister” doesn’t “demand respect.” There’s nothing inherently powerful in the word. In fact, it would likely be met with derision for being so odd and misused.

  1. September 10, 2009 at 12:04 AM
  2. October 26, 2009 at 11:21 PM

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