A White Girl and the “N” Word

July 15, 2013 § 5 Comments

Diverse kids

When I was in elementary school in 1970’s Brooklyn, NY (maybe third grade?) a kid (who was white) told me I had “n*gger lips.”  It felt weird, because I wasn’t sure if it was a compliment or not, but I kind of knew something wasn’t right about it.  Honestly, I don’t remember how I responded.  Maybe I looked confused or maybe I tried to be cool about it.  I was seven or eight.  I was also kinda socially awkward and, frankly, just happy to be getting some attention from a peer – that much I do remember.

This led, however, to an exchange with my sister I’ve never forgotten. She’s two years older than I am, and we walked home from school together.  To say I looked up to her is an understatement.  So we’re walking home that day and I tell her, “Guess what?  So-and-so told me today I had n*gger lips!”

She stopped dead in her tracks and looked at me in shock.  Then she narrowed her eyes and said, “I’m not even going to dignify that with a response.”  And she kept walking.  (Yes, that is exactly what she said, and yes, she was articulate and mature enough in fifth grade to deliver the line that effectively.)  That’s when I knew it was bad.  Then I knew I’d said something terrible.  And Rachel disapproved.  That was just as bad.  Now I can’t even write the word without substituting an asterisk for the “i.”

Years later, I had my own opportunity to teach someone younger than I about using that word.  When I taught eighth grade civics in Virginia, I had some kids in my class who were black.  One day, before class started, they were joking around with each other, and the “N” word was being bandied about.  They were very clearly using it to refer to themselves and each other without the slightest degree of animosity or insult intended.

They were surprised when their 24-year-old white teacher told them to knock it off and watch their language.  I don’t remember many of the details of this conversation, but in essence, they said it was fine for them to use that term, since they were black.  I responded something to the effect of, “I don’t care what color you are – I’m offended by that word used by anyone, in any context.  As a teacher, it is a racial slur, and not permitted in my classroom.  And for your information, referring to each other using that term makes it easier for racists to justify the term to describe you.”  Or something like that.  They were very good kids and gave me no problem about it whatsoever.  The issue never came up again,  but I’ve often wondered about the complexities of that exchange.

Just like my sister Rachel knew she needed to respond the way she did in fifth grade, I knew I was within my rights, and even obligation, as a teacher to forbid certain language in the classroom.  As a civics teacher especially, I couldn’t resist adding a lesson in social commentary.  Did I overstep in telling them they were sort of providing racists justification (rightly or wrongly) for their use of slurs?  Maybe.  No parents contacted the school in outrage, and the kids seemed to be over the incident as quickly as it happened.

I still sometimes wonder, though, if I did the wrong thing by possibly placing part of the burden of racism on their 13-year-old shoulders by implying they were contributing to it. It involved a critique of my students’ language, but it was an attempt to empower them, regardless.  (Had I heard a white kid using the “N” word, I’d have gone into orbit and they would have been scraping me off the ceiling.)

I guess the reason why the incident still sits with me 20 years later (okay, now you know how old I am) is that I give a lot of thought to the importance of the source in a lesson like that.  Would that statement have had more impact if it came from a black teacher?  From a male teacher?  Did the fact that I was a young white woman delegitimize the criticism?  Probably to a degree.  I certainly don’t agonize over the incident, nor do I think I did much damage, if any, but it stays with me nonetheless – as an exchange in which I’m pretty sure (and I definitely hope) I did the right thing.

This post originally appeared on The Broad Side on June 27, 2013.

Image via iStockphoto/Jani Bryson



“Were You Trying?” Well, That Question Certainly Was…

July 1, 2013 § 12 Comments

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We truly are an entitlement-driven culture.

I’m not talking about welfare or tax breaks–I’m talking about people feeling entitled to KNOW things they have no business knowing.  I recently wrote about politicians’ infidelity (and how it is or isn’t relevant) in this post at The Broad Side.  I could blame it on the internet, or too much information, or Facebook for encouraging over-sharing. Truthfully, though, this sort of butting in happened waaaay before the internet age made everyone experts on any number of things, including medicine, politics, and entertainment. My favorite examples, though, involve knowing (and judging) someone else’s childbearing decisions.

I have friends (in real life and online) who share stories of intrusiveness that give me a facial tic. A friend who has one child is routinely told her child needs a sibling. Another friend who is single and childless is reminded by well-meaning friends that thanks to science, dontchyaknow, she doesn’t actually need to be married or in a relationship to have a baby. What’s the hold-up?

That people feel entitled to comment on, let alone challenge, someone else’s child rearing (or any other personal) choices makes me seethe. I’ve certainly been on the receiving end of such intrusiveness. I was absolutely floored by the first person who asked me if we were trying when I revealed I was pregnant. I’m sure many regard this as a benign question, and mean no harm. Still, I remained floored, embarrassed, speechless that someone I barely knew felt free to ask me what amounted to questions about the most private aspects of my married life.

My husband and I continued to be amazed through each of my three pregnancies how many people would ask us if we had been “trying.” I had pretty quickly developed a response that involved a cock of my head to the side, furrowed eyebrows, and a, “That’s kind of a personal question, don’t you think???” My husband, normally gentle and patient to a fault, had even less ability to tolerate this question than I did. When some poor, clueless, unfortunate soul asked him this at work about our third pregnancy, he finally lost it. “WHAT makes people THINK they have the RIGHT to ASK that question????”   To which his clueless co-worker responded, “Well, how am I going to find out if I don’t ASK?”  Head, meet desk.

Then there was the colleague who “caught” me eating saltines. Oh, she was a regular Columbo, that one. It was VERY early in my first pregnancy, and she happened upon me while I was alone in my classroom marking papers. “I knew it! I knew it! I knew you were pregnant!” she accused, pointing her finger at me. I hadn’t told anyone yet because we’d wanted to wait for the first trimester to pass uneventfully before coming out with the news. But no–she adopted a very haughty, “You can’t fool ME,” attitude and berated me for keeping the info to myself. The nerve of me! In fact, I had so much nerve, that I told her I was pretty sure it was MY decision when and to whom I revealed my being pregnant and that she needed to mind her own business and keep her mouth shut.

Maybe I’m alone in this, but I was raised to NEVER ask a person if he or she had children (or its corollary, if a woman was pregnant) let alone question their reasoning and decisions. This may seem a little extreme to some, but my parents’ reasoning was this:

You never know if the question is going to cause someone pain. You don’t know if the issue is a source of contention between the spouses. Perhaps the person you’re asking has just had a miscarriage. Maybe the woman was raised in a violent household, and has vowed to never have kids of her own. What if a couple has been desperately trying to conceive, and have suffered countless heartbreaks and disappointment in their attempts?

Or maybe you might find yourself in the situation I did. (I am guilty of sometimes not following my own rules.) An old friend found me through Facebook and my writing. He had frequently half-joked in college that he wanted to be a stay-at-home dad and have six kids. I would completely-joke back, “I wish your future wife a lot of luck.” As we were re-acquainting ourselves after 20+ years, he told me he and his lovely wife have five children. “Five? I thought the magic number was six!” I teased light-heartedly.

His response? “We did have six.”

This post appeared in its original form at Kveller.com in November 2012.

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