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.