my daughter confronts the N-Word… with love

I wrote a blog a couple years ago about the controversy surrounding the Don Imus fiasco, where he referred to a championship basketball team of women as Nappy Headed Hos… which led to a conversation with my children about the words ho and nigger, among others. In this entry I titled Don’t call me out of name, a phrase which comes from street vernacular and means don’t label me something I’m not, I struggled with a heavy subject… how could I give my children not only the tools, but also the strength to take a stand for themselves against the lure of the n-word in peer situations. While it’s probably unlikely my kids would feel pressure to use the word themselves, I wanted to empower them to “be the change” and influence others in a positive manner to not only discourage others from using the n-word to address them, but to also reconsider their use of the word, period.

I realize that’s a mighty tall order… and from a white girl at that. Like black folks haven’t been trying to discourage their kids from the use of the word for more years than I’ve been alive. And I can get up on my soapbox with other white folks and let them have it over the n-word… cuz to paraphrase a handful of white folks who are way smarter than me… racism is a white problem. We created it, we benefit from it… we need to address it within ourselves, our families, and our communities. And I feel pretty confident in teaching my children not to tolerate for one second a white person calling them by that pejorative. But I really struggled with how to guide my brown-skinned children through the minefield of the n-word when it’s used a so called endearment or as a sign of solidarity. I’m not naive enough to think that being called a nigger lover gives me any kind of authority on what it feels like to be on the receiving end of the n-word, whether from the mouth of a white or black person… and while I know that anyone who lived through the civil rights movement and the first generation after would be hard pressed to justify or tolerate it’s use, but I guess part of me did figure that it was somehow less painful for the younger generation to hear, that whether they used it themselves or not, they were desensitized to the vulgarity of the word due to the prevalence of it’s use in music and media. I was very much mistaken in this assumption, and exactly how deeply wrong I was became very clear to me last year as my daughter first encountered the complexity of social cliques… part of the shrapnel I mention in that post was one girl’s foul mouth, including her use of the word “nigga.”

I love...

Her love is like the ocean...

To set the scene, clique consisted of half a dozen or so kids, all of whom were black except my daughter (Sudanese African & what I call Heinz 57 (Anglo/English with some Native American ancestry who grew up with a Italian & German culture) and the antagonist (African American & Hispanic) in this situation, who we’ll call Jane. Halle told me that Jane would say it mostly to the boys and that she was trying to be funny. Hearing the word was very upsetting to Halle, but even more upsetting was how no one else seemed bothered by it; in fact, the boys seemed to think it was cool.  

I try not to go all helicopter parent about interpersonal conflicts with peers. I think it’s important for kids to work out their issues with each other, with parental support and guidance. This is an important part of growing up and learning how to navigate office politics… which sadly, whether you are in an academic environment or corporate America, often resemble middle school antics. So I try to let my kids to handle their issues directly with their friends, and intervene when necessary.

In this instance, I encouraged Halle to focus less on what the antagonist was doing. You can’t control Jane’s behavior… you can’t make Jane do anything Jane doesn’t want to do. But that doesn’t mean you have to tolerate Jane’s behavior. Halle talked about confronting Jane and telling her she wasn’t going to hang out with her anymore because of her language. Not wanting the bullying that had gone on earlier in the year to resume with a focus on my child, I discouraged Halle from a big confrontation. Just choose to spend your time with another group of friends… you don’t owe Jane an explanation. If she asks why you haven’t been hanging out with her anymore, or if she asks you to hang out at recess, tell her about YOU.

I’d like to hang out with you, but I feel really uncomfortable when you say [fill in the blank]. I can’t control what you say, only you can do that, but if you choose to use those words, I’ll have to go because it really hurts my feelings.

Halle seemed comfortable with this approach, but when push came to shove, she wasn’t ready to confront Jane directly, her way or mine. I had given Halle’s teacher a head’s up, but because the language was happening on the playground & cafeteria, it was very easy for Jane to drop her N-bombs without being overheard. Then one day, I found Halle at the kitchen table on the verge of tears, trying to work out a schedule for herself spending time with her friends who couldn’t get along so that she was with a different friend each day and never the same person two days in a row but there was one person who she didn’t know very well but wanted to know better and couldn’t find a place to fit them.

And when she opened up about what was really upsetting her, it was how to keep up the delicate balance of this social circle where all the girls finally seemed to be getting along, and she didn’t want to rock the boat by calling out this behavior that was chipping away at her spirit. I listened to her talk for a while, head down, eyes on her paper… but when she raised her head and I saw her beautiful brown eyes full of tears and she said to me…

Mommy, in my whole life, nobody has ever said nigger in front of me before. NEVER IN MY WHOLE LIFE.

My heart broke… I knew the day would come where my children would come into contact with the n-word in real life, and not in the safe academic conversations in our home, but it was even more bitter to have that scenario be at school, and from someone who looked like her.

That’s when I told her that I felt she had done everything she could do on her own, and that I knew her teacher had tried really hard to address these issues, and it was time for Mom to meet with the Principal of the school. I left it up to her whether she wanted to go with me, but told her the meeting would happen the week right before winter break, in hopes that the long recess would calm hurt feelings on both sides. Halle decided to go with me, and I let her tell the principal what was happening and how she felt about it… and I could see that it pained him greatly when she told him that her first experience with the n-word was at his school.

At the end of it, just having the support from her family and the school together empowered Halle to speak up on her behalf. After Jane was pulled in for a conference about Halle’s allegations (where she fessed, from what I understand) Halle told her that she had been the narc. They cried together about it and when the tears dried, they found themselves with the beginnings of a real friendship. Halle told me later that Jane told her she didn’t know why she’d even used those words (and that she got her backside warmed for it too).

My Army of One

My Army of ONE LOVE

All in all, I was awed and amazed by Halle’s sensitivity and strength in handling this complex situation at the tender age of nine years old. I wish that this was the only time she’ll have to deal with the n-word… or that every time would end in such a positive manner. I’m terribly afraid we just lucked out this time. But I hope this experience from this battle is one she carries with her, and gives her strength to attack the monster again, and eventually win this war.

Recommended reading: soulbrother v.2: Enslaved by Language: A Brief Archaeology of the Word Nigger

  1. September 10, 2009 at 6:33 PM

    Halle rocks my socks. And so do you! *hugs you both*

    • September 10, 2009 at 9:45 PM

      Thanks Becky Boop… she rocks my socks, floats my boat, and shakes my shimmy 😀

  2. September 11, 2009 at 12:33 AM

    That was really great!! Thanks for sharing!! 🙂

  3. Kathy
    September 13, 2009 at 5:23 PM

    We haven’t had this conversation with Mason yet. I don’t know if it’s because he’s a boy or what. Then again, even in Berkeley where there’s hella diversity, black kids aren’t a “significant subgroup” at our school so they’re really the minority–ironic since our school is in the poorest part of Berkeley.

  4. September 15, 2009 at 9:04 PM

    I have given you a Kreativ Blogger Award! Your life is complete now.
    Come check out the post-
    XOXO Laura

  5. September 22, 2009 at 10:09 PM

    @Kathy – When I brought it up, I was actually gearing it more towards Tyler, because I’d hear the n-word out of kids his age & older, mostly boys. I was surprised it was an issue for Halle this early on.

  6. September 25, 2009 at 4:48 AM

    Wow. This is a remarkable post. Thank you for sharing this story. I’m so proud of your daughter, and of you. You handled this situation with amazing sensitivity and she was remarkably brave.

  1. November 16, 2009 at 11:54 AM
  2. October 21, 2009 at 1:25 AM

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