The ‘N’ Word

n word nieema fosterAs a parent I want to protect my children from anything and everything that could hurt them, but realistically that’s not possible. The best I can do is prepare them as well as I can for dealing with and overcoming those issues as they come up. Of course some of the biggest issues that could hurt them come from factors they have absolutely no control over, a fact that hurts even more because, even though I wouldn’t want them to change to fit someone else’s standard, at least it is a flexible thing. When someone hurts either of my children, for whatever reason, though, I am like a papa bear who wants to rip down the entire forest to get justice.

I knew from a young age that if I ever brought children into the world they would be judged, not merely on their mental capacity, or on their empathetic scale, or even on the style of dress they fancied, but also on the color of their skin. Even when I grew older and married a woman who just happened to be white, I knew that skin color would still be an issue, because our children would never be “just” white, so they would be different, especially around here. Yes, we’ve made some great gains in race relations and issues surrounding the tension therein, but prejudice still abounds, even if it is done more subtly now than ever before.

In the class photos you can see the differences, in the abundance of curly, kinky hair, in the fullness of the lips, in the curve of the nose. These characteristics she inherited from me, and I’m proud of that, that I can see some of myself, and of my heritage, in her, even just physically. She gets so much from her mother too, but the one thing that stands out most, especially when looking at the class photos, is her skin color. There is a bit of a Mariah Carey light mocha coloring she has that is so beautiful to me, but I know when others see it they have their own ideas. I will honestly never know why, but some people can’t stand what they don’t understand.

When we are out and about without my wife, it’s interesting to see how differently people treat us, and how they treat me in particular. We are a black family when I am with my children on my own. It’s plain to see when older black women smile at the kids, as if they were their own grandchildren, or when we pass older white couples who look at us like we’re a completely new species. These same older black women, and these same older white couples, treat us differently when we are all together. In fact, they tend to ignore us and go about their business. They don’t “get” us. They can’t wrap their brains around an interracial couple, a mixed race family, even now, in this day and age.

The first time I heard someone use the ‘N’ word I was probably about 8 years old and it was on my block, a place comprised of all black folk, and the term was meant to be endearing. A young woman, perhaps 21, was shouting across the street at her boyfriend who was hanging out with his friends. She was trying to tell him that she wanted him to come over  later, but instead of using his name, she called him that term that I had never heard before. I thought nothing of it, but somehow my sister  knew what it meant. She refused to talk to me for a while after the interaction, probably processing her anger about it, until later she explained to me why it was a bad word, what it really meant.

Dean_Front_cover_EDITEDI’ve hated it ever since, every single time I hear it. And I don’t believe in re-claiming words, taking them out of the negative context and making something positive out of them. It doesn’t work with “bitch,” and it certainly can’t be resurrected as a term of endearment with the ‘N’ word. That’s why I also don’t believe anyone who says they were just using the term casually. This isn’t the ‘F’ word we’re talking about here. There is no casual usage of the ‘N’ word, no matter what is said about it by way of explanation. Every single time someone uses that word the connotation is relevant, and thought went into using it instead of some other word. And it is just as bad when a black person says it as it is when any other person on the planet says it.

Except where children are involved. If a child uses language like that, it’s for one reason only: they’ve heard their parents or someone else use the language, and they parrot it back like an echo. That’s why my wife and I are going to sit down with our oldest daughter and talk to her about prejudice, about the reasons people use derogatory language aimed at others, about the hurt and pain it could cause. We want to prepare her, and eventually our youngest daughter too, for the world out there, for that other kid who decides it’s okay to use the ‘N’ word because their parents used it so they figure it must be okay.

It’s never okay, and it’s not just the ‘N’ word either. Any term that is offensive to anyone is offensive to me, and I want to make sure my daughter understands that it’s never okay to say something horrible about another human being, that the type of tolerance we reserve for other things will not be reserved for something of that magnitude. It just so happens that this is the ignorant term we are most likely to hear when it comes to skin color. With my youngest daughter it might have something to do with her developmental and speech delays relating to Down syndrome, and we want to prepare her as well, because people can be so cruel, even though there is no reason to be, and no justification for it.

And I know I can’t protect my children from every single hostile term aimed at them, but I can help to make them stronger, so that they can see that it’s a denigration of the person using the term, not of my children. They will see that strength comes from understanding who you are, and understanding who you’re not. Only the weak talk down to others to try and build themselves up. Instead, I am helping to build my children up so that they can handle those terms when they push in from all sides, and so that they can appreciate who they are and every part of their heritage regardless of others.


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