There a lot of conversations that I don’t feel absolutely prepared for as a parent. Some of them are universal and some are exclusive to certain communities such as, “Are we poor?”, “Why do they hate us?”, “Will we be deported?”, etc. Recently, my daughter has asked me twice, what the “N word” is. The first time she asked me I just said it is a name that some white people used to call black people to put them down, but then black people took the word from them, shifted the meaning and appropriate usage, and now it is a word that people only use if they are willing to deal with the consequences. The first time she just accepted it. I hoped that that was sufficient, but the second time she asked, she wanted more specifics.
“But what is the ‘N word’ exactly?”
“I already told you.”
“No you didn’t. You told me about it. But I still don’t know what it is.”
“What do you know?”
“Kids at school said it is a bad word and we aren’t supposed to say it.”
“Did they say what the ‘N’ stands for?
“Nigget or Nagget.” Is that it?
“Well that’s close. But that isn’t it.”
“Please tell me then.”
That’s where I ended the conversation by telling her that I was going to sit down with her one day soon and explain the whole thing to her. Now I am trying to figure out how to do it in a way that doesn’t diminish her developing sense of self.
Being a super minority in her school, I am not really sure how I want to approach explaining this to her. While I would like to tell her my complicated relationship with the word, I am also mindful that if she tries to repeat it to other kids we might find ourselves in the office explaining something that I am not certain this community we live in knows how to handle. I remember when I asked my mom what the word meant, she simply responded, “It means an ignorant person. Don’t use it. And if someone calls you one to put you down tell them they’re the nigger.”
Even though there is misconception among the misinformed that most black people go around calling each other nigger, even among black people there are a variety of opinions on the word’s usage. I never heard anyone in my family say it as a child. I heard it for the first time when I moved to an area in Norfolk, VA and another 7 year old called me one within minutes of meeting me. Being black too, he didn’t say it with malicious intent. It was just a part of his inquiry into who I was. It rolled off his tongue as fluidly as a hello. That night I repeated the word to my mother and she gave me the above mentioned advice.
What Did You Just Call My Sons?
The first time I heard the word with negative intent was when my little brother and I were visiting my father in Mississippi during the summer before third grade. A twenty something called us “little nappy head niggers” in an effort to impress his girlfriend. We were walking ahead of my father so he didn’t realize whose kids he was talking to. For a moment I considered my mom’s advice and thought of telling him he was the nigger. But instead I told my dad.
It took me years to realize the impact of that moment on my life. Seeing my dad put that guy in his place was monumental. In some way I almost felt sorry for the guy as my dad embarrassed him in front of his girlfriend and made him apologize to my brother and me. I know the apology was meaningless, but it showed me something. That guy had to have a pretty empty interior life to get value out of putting down little kids who were just going to play at the beach. He looked like a lost little kid next to my dad. The other thing I witnessed was the restraint my dad had. I could see in his face that he was wrestling with how to handle the situation. Whenever the guy tried to make some excuse like, “I didn’t know they were your kids,” I could see my dad wanted to punch him. But instead my dad informed him that this didn’t make it any better and that if he caught him calling any kids nigger in his presence they’d have more problems. Finally, for both of their sake, my dad told the guy to leave the beach park. And he did.
I don’t know how many young black males growing up in the South ever witnessed something like that with their dad or close male figure, but as some of us can imagine it had a profound effect on me–an effect that was present when a white student called me that after school one day.
Kids Say the Darndest Things
Him: “Hey nigger. Carry my books.”
Me: “Who are you calling nigger, nigger?”
Him: “You can’t call me nigger. I’m white. My people used to own your people. Technically you should still be my slave.”
Me: “Whatever. My mom said a nigger is an ignorant person and you must be ignorant if you think I’m carrying your books.”
Him: “Are you calling me ignorant?”
Me: “Of course.”
Him: “You’re lucky I don’t care what niggers think.”
Me: “You’re just as lucky that I don’t care what you think. And you’re lucky I’m going to keep this conversation to myself. Don’t talk to me again unless it’s to apologize.”
Him: “You’re crazy.”
Me: “I know.”
In that moment I felt a tension similar to what I imagined my dad felt. Truth be told, I felt like if he said a few more words I might have punched him, which wasn’t really my style. By God’s grace, we both just walked away. Ironically, on the following Monday he stopped me to introduce me to another white kid saying, “This is the black kid I told you about.” The other kid was nice and seemed genuinely happy to meet me. The three of us even hung out one time after “J” apologized for our first encounter. He also never uttered that word in my presence again. Whether his heart was totally transformed, I don’t know. One can hope. But perhaps nothing changed in his private life. And I think that’s the awareness I’m not ready to share with my daughter.
When I think about explaining “the N Word” to my daughter, I imagine sharing these and other stories with her. But the protector in me doesn’t want to tell her the part about how there are people who would never say the word in public, but say it in private. Or even more disheartening are the people who never say it, but live it in their inner being, but are completely unconscious of it–and that some of them may be people she loves.
Even more challenging is explaining to her how there is a way to say it that communicates a familiarity with the struggle of American marginality–a way of saying it that is more than simply replacing the -er with an -a or an -uh sound. There’s a resonance or vibration that silently communicates, “I feel your pain.” And how can I communicate to her that until she is made to feel like a nigger i.e. wholly other in this society, she may never have access to that resonance and thereby, even though she’s black cannot say the word in its acceptable form. I even wonder how I will explain it to her if she ever hears me saying it in certain company because it just feels right in that context. And so for now, I still haven’t explained it to her. Because the fact is, if she “gets it” that means she’s felt the pain or soon will feel the pain that I, as a father desire so desperately to shield her from as long as I can.
I’m Going to Fail Miserably
No loving parents wants to fail their children, but even the best of us do to some degree. I know I’m going to fail in my efforts to explain this word to my daughter. My choices are to fail in my attempt to deceive her or fail in my attempt to tell her the truth as I see it. I will choose the latter because one day she won’t be my little girl anymore. She will have to grow up. Part of growing up is making peace with our parent’s limitations and realizing that they could never fully protect us from the painful things of this world.
14 We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. 15 But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
If I could grant my daughters one thing, it would be for them to mature in their Christ nature–to be not conformed to the world, but to be transformed by the continued renewal of their mind. I want them to live in such a way that what others say about them only has the affect that they allow it to have. But in order for them to get there, they will have to bear their unique crosses in this world. If I answer my oldest daughter’s question effectively, she will receive a glimpse of what part of her cross will be.
The thought of her taking this the wrong way pains me. But the thought of her learning the harder way is more painful. Even as I write, I am looking at her smiling and playing with a friend and wishing this cup could pass from her. But instead, in a few days we will sit down and watch the story of Ruby Bridges and I am going to explain this word to her the best I can. My prayer is that where I fail to adequately explain this word and the context out of which it emerged, God’s grace will be sufficient to show her that who she is beyond the limitations of any label, name, or word that people ascribe to her and that Child of God is the only label that truly matters.
To hear one person’s opinion on the word usage, see this commentary from Jerrod Carmichael.