The N-Word: Teaching Children About Race Relations

Last week on Parenthood, the interracially-wedded Jasmine (Black) and Crosby (White) faced the difficult task of explaining the n-word to their young son. When Crosby relayed the story of how Jabar came to hear it (via African-American rappers in a recording studio), one of her Jasmine’s first questions was, “What did he hear? Was it nigga or nigger?” Like almost anyone, Crosby knew that the n-word was a loaded bomb. However, he didn’t understand the nuanced difference between nigga and nigger and had no idea what to tell his son about it. The reality is that many parents, no matter the race, find themselves ill-equipped to educate their children about usage of the n-word.

As with any complex subject, in my house, the nature of the discussion changes as the kids age and mature. In the beginning, it was kept simple. The only thing I wanted them to know when they were little was that it was a mean word that slave owners or prejudiced white people used to call blacks and that it has its roots from when there was still slavery. When they’re that little (around ages 4-7), I leave it at that and if they have any additional questions, I answer in kid-friendly terms. 

The real work of it doesn’t come until around age 8 or 9, and it usually is in response to their growing awareness of the world allowing them to make connections independently. They’ll ask something along the lines of, “Why is okay for black people to say the n-word and not for other people to?” This is where the discussion about the difference between “nigger” and “nigga” comes into play. We talk again about what the already know of the word’s derogatory connotation. 

Then I lead them into talking about how they see/hear other African-Americans using it. They can point out that when used by Blacks, it seems not to have the name negativity; it has the appearance of being acceptable. Then I’m able to explain that some African-Americans tried to take the sting out of the word by claiming it as their own.

On Blacks taking ownership of and “redefining” the n-word, Dr. Maya Angelou said, “Putting poison in a different bottle doesn’t change the fact that it’s still poison.” I tend to agree with that. However, I still understand and am accepting of how other African-Americans have no qualms about using “nigga” freely. I don’t necessarily agree with it, but that’s a part of our culture that is likely here to stay. Oddly enough, from an objective standpoint I can appreciate the empowerment that some African-Americans feel from “taking” the word. 

I explain all of that to the Minions, and they do share my views. I want them to formulate their own opinions about many things, but this is one area that I REALLY stress my viewpoint on to such an extent that it also becomes their view. I want them to see both sides of the coin. I don’t want them ever to feel comfortable with either version coming out of their own mouths, and I don’t ever want it to be acceptable to them to have someone, especially someone outside of their own race, refer to them as a nigger.  These days, it’s almost an honor for a person of a different race (especially young men) to be “in” enough with a Black boy to get a “pass” on using “nigga.” I might have some degree of tolerance to hear it used by one of my own culture, but I draw the line when it’s given to others to use.

Though I want my children to understand and believe that fundamentally, any version or derivation of “nigger” is unacceptable to us within our family, I also want them to understand that if someday one of Jaiden’s Black friends greets him with, “What up, my nigga?” he shouldn’t feel offended. Couched in the word is the intent to relay brotherhood, and as a brother to his friend, he has a responsibility to share what he knows about the word and every right to ask not to be referred to in that way if it makes him uncomfortable. It is a fine balance, and I hope that my children are able to walk that tightrope with grace, tolerance, respect, and understanding. 

No matter your race, educating your children about the power of words is a responsibility that we have as parents. Parents of Black children, don’t expect that this knowledge is innate. It is not passed on in the same genetic fibers that gives our children their rich skin. Parents of children of other races, don’t expect that Black History Month and MLK Day celebrations will teach your children everything there is to know about race relations. It goes beyond the n-word, which is exclusive to the Black community. Awareness isn’t and shouldn’t be limited to an understanding of African-American culture.

Even worse, some parents do not address the issue at all, thinking that if they don’t make a big deal of race relations, then their children won’t, either. In my post in response to Trayvon Martin’s murder, someone left a comment which exemplifies gross misconceptions that can develop when one’s idea of promoting racial harmony is to ignore the differences among us. I do not advise this approach, EVER. Children are going to be educated about the complexities of living in a multicultural society one way or another. If that education doesn’t come from the parents in a controlled, supportive, and loving environment and context, then the education they receive will come from the media, from their friends, and from other sources over which you have no control. The quality of that “education” is not likely to give them a healthy, well-rounded viewpoint.

Case in point — last year a student (age 15)  while standing right in front of me shouted down the hall to a friend, “Nigga, you crazy!”

I said, “Do you even know why you use the word ‘nigga’? Do you even know how it can be a dangerous word?”

She said, “What’s wrong with it? That’s what we are. We’re niggas. It just means ‘black’.”

She TRULY had no understanding that it had a negative connotation, even in the -er form used by racists today and throughout history. After talking with her about the negativity that the word is burdened with, she made the decision to banish both forms from her lexicon, and I even heard her start encouraging her friends to do so, too. Clearly, this young woman had never been told by an adult of the power that word. And if the adults in her life didn’t find it important enough to share it with her, it’s likely that the adults in their lives didn’t find it important enough, either. 

Have these conversations with the children in your lives. Taking an active approach develops a healthy sense of self in which they can feel pride in their own heritage and also have appreciation and respect for others’ cultures, as well.

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9 thoughts on “The N-Word: Teaching Children About Race Relations”

  1. This is a very important post and I especially agree with your views on speaking to our children about race. There is a really eye opening chapter in Nuture Shock about that very topic, where they discuss studies that show children who do not have discussions about race (because their parents think that bringing attention to race will make them see differences more and be less accepting of them) are actually much less tolerant and understanding of those who are different from them. Being with people of different backgrounds doesn’t even help children develop tolerance for others, at least it doesn’t unless it is happening in tandem with conversations about how and why people are different and why they should still be treated the same despite those differences. I wish more people knew and understood that because we have a big responsibility to our children and everyone else’s to teach acceptance.

    The power of words is also an incredibly important lesson, one I will teach my daughter over and over again.

  2. I am an “All Around American Heinz 57!” I am considered Caucasian aka white but, (my skin tone is so lily white, I could not tan if my life depended on it and I even glow in the dark!) my heritage is as mixed as the next:
    Cherokee Indian
    Back-Woods Countryfried
    (and who knows what else)

    My grandmother dated men of all races, she always told me love see’s no color, love sees the heart. I will admit for a long time I despised men, not only for what I saw happen to my mother, but from my own personal traumatic experiences. With time and love I was able to overcome my displaced feelings. We learn a lot from our role models, good or bad.

    We learn and teach our kids about multiple cultures, not only is it fun to learn about all of the wonderful things in the world, but also knowledge is the best power. If you look at what runs through my blood you will see many different groupings that were once joined in war- German and Jewish is just one example.

    Our home, is a Pagan home, full of love. That in and of its self, brings so much drama into our lives from bullies and religious prejudices and so dadgum many misconceptions- not to mention the fact that my teenage daughter is a lesbian. I have been called many names and now my daughter is getting the same- Tree Hugger (which I have come to like that name), Rainbow Hippy, FREAK of nature, God’s enemy, Devil Worshiper are just a few- there many worse names I could add to the list. She comes home in tears asking me why, why do they do and say the things they do, what did I ever do to them to deserve this? All I can do is hold her, comfort her, and explain to her why.

    Every word that has been perverted into a nasty word has an origin, just as some of the nasty words have become a better word. My daughter knows the first definition to these words as well as the present definition. She uses this to her benefit and educates her peers (and a time or two teachers at her school) much in the same way as you did the little girl calling to her friend down the hall .

    I have always raised my trio to look at someone for who they are, not to look at race, gender, sexual and race orientation or religion. You love the book for what is written, not the cover. All we can hope for, is for more people to gain a similar outlook, start teaching children more about the history and cruelties, so hopefully, one day all of the hate in the world will vanish.

  3. Great, thought-provoking post. And I am very intrigued by Esperanza’s comment: I don’t like to point out race to my kids, because I worry about identifying people by their differences and not their similarities but I definitely want to make sure they are tolerant: that’s a BIG value I want to impart. Nurture Shock has been bumped up my reading list.

    This post reminds me of a party my friends had: the host set up this awesome Karaoke machine. My husband and I stepped up to the mic, to Kayne West’s “Golddigger”: and major awkwardness ensued because we would not sing the “n” word, because it seemed really wrong, but the word is repeated many times in that song, (which I didn’t know because I had only heard the radio edit). Eventually, one of our friends, who is African American, got on stage with us, and he took over the “n” words (and sang the whole song with us.) He was really cool about it. But, yikes!!

  4. I’ve wanted to write about this issue for a long time. We live in a mostly black neighborhood in a city that is 80% black. My son is the only white (not to mention Jewish) kid in the neighborhood. Whenever we are on the playground around the corner from our house, we hear the teenage boys calling each other nigga on the basketball courts. I always wondered if he’d ever ask about the word. Then one day, my son was singing along to a rap song (that I forgot to get the clean version of) and he sang with word Nigga. In my head, I freaked out. I wanted to stop him, but I wasn’t sure if he would get it at 7. However, I didn’t want him to put himself in a bad position while playing by not knowing the power of the word, so I brought it up.
    I told him that using the N word in any form is a million times worse than the F word. He was completely confused. He couldn’t understand why there would be one special bad word for one group of people. It reminded me that in an odd way, my children are exceedingly sheltered. While he’s the only white kid in our neighborhood and at his karate class up the street, no one has ever treated him differently. He’s never made to feel like the token white kid. At school, he’s in Jewish Day school, so everyone is Jewish. His school is one big welcoming hug. He has no point of reference for real cruelty. Which, is pretty amazing.
    However, I still struggle how to really explain it to him so he gets it. We’ve talked about slavery and Jim Crowe. I’ve even screamed out in a movie about the Tuskegee airmen–•”that’s why the n word is so bad!”
    He’s like, ” people shouldn’t care so much about words.”
    I’ve brought this up to my students– inner city minority mostly women— mostly mothers… All struggling. One of them said, ” it don’t matter Miss Marty. It’s a bad word. People shouldn’t use it. We don’t have time to sit around and worry about why. We’ve got bills to pay and kids to raise. Just say its bad. That’s enough.”

  5. I’ll tell you what, I would rather have the F word said in front of my daughter than the N word. She went through a phase when she was 4 when she was saying she didn’t like people based on their appearance (and skin color was one of the things she cited), and we had a long discussion on how ridiculous that was when she had people that she absolutely loved with this feature or that color or whatever. I think she was just testing a theory.

  6. Have I mentioned recently that I love you passionately? Really, JW, this post spoke to my heart. You are a great mom.

    We live in a very white community in the South (I would not have chosen to live here, but I got a great job that I needed, and I’m in a hard-to-find-a-job field), so Eggbert is one of only two kids of color in her school and usually the only child of color in her other activities. I have heard white teenagers around here calling their black “friends” the N-word, and it curdles my blood. I actually spoke to one of the mothers about this, and she said “but his friend doesn’t mind!” as if that somehow made it OK. Ugh.;

  7. Very well written post. Parents need to educate their children on all forms of negative words, including race and sexual orientation. I try but schools are needing to eduacte and enforce this by not allowing negative slang to be used by kids. Especially if they don’t know what it means. Any time my kid uses a word I may not like I ask him to explain the word – if he can’t then he can’t use it.

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