When Innocence is Lost

The morning started off like normal. Navigating through breakfast and getting ready for school. The clean laundry hadn’t made it to my son’s room so he grabbed some clothes from the basket and stripped down.

Me: My naked boy.

My son in a shocked voice: Mom, you said the n-word!

My heart stopped.

I think it is adorable that my son thinks the n-word is naked. His innocence in full display to me. But my heart stopped and reality set in. His privilege was on display too.

I’m heartbroken that I have to take some of his innocence away to make sure he understands the gravity of the n-word. The fact that he is 8 and I haven’t had to have this conversation with him until now is my privilege on display.

What do you tell an 8-year-old about the n-word?

Not knowing where to start I explained that it is a really mean, horrible word that is used to hurt people and should never be used. No exceptions. He seemed to accept that and our focus shifted back to getting ready for school.

Not the best place to leave it. He knows there is an n-word, but doesn’t know what it is and why it is a bad word. What if he uses it thinking he’s saying naked? We need to have a longer conversation.

How do I teach my 8-year-old about the n-word?

He needs to understand the historical context of the word. He needs to understand that it is never acceptable for him to use the word. He needs to understand that using the euphemism “n-word” is done when discussing history and racism. I’m not sure context is something an 8-year-old understands.

There is also the hard concept of the current day usage in African American Vernacular English. I need to think more about how to approach that in a way that an 8-year-old will understand.

I need to teach my son the n-word. I need to do it before someone else does. And when I teach him I will be continuing its existence into his generation. It is never going away and that makes me angry. Displaced anger since the problem isn’t with the word. The issue is the contextual history behind the word. Slavery and the on-going oppression of black people in this country are forever intertwined with the n-word.

I don’t want my son to know this word, but he will. He needs to know how I expect him to respond when he hears it. He needs to know that there is no circumstance where it is ever acceptable for him to use it. He needs to know the extent of his privilege of not knowing about this word for the first 8 years of his life. He needs to know that I expect him to be an advocate for those who do not share his white male privilege.

So what am I going to say? I need to figure this out. He’s 8 so I need to make it age appropriate. I plan to do it in stages since I want him to understand the historical context as well as its current contextual usage. My knowledge of history is rudimentary so I’ll need to do some research to make sure I’m portraying events from more than just the white historical view that I was taught in school.

Here is the beginning of what I want my son to learn. It will be more than one conversation and it should be. He’s been learning about consent since he started talking. He should have been learning about this too. It’s a core principle that I have been derelict in conveying. No more.

The word is “x” and is connected to the beginning of our nation. This country’s wealth was made in the cotton industry. That wealth came at a cost. It was very labor intensive to pick cotton so a large, low-cost labor force was needed. White people who immigrated from Europe owned the farms and they brought black people from Africa and enslaved them to work their farms. Enslaved means the black people had no rights, no freedom, no choices of their own. They were treated like property similar to a house or car.

The white slave owners thought it was ok to buy, sell, and own people, but that was wrong. The white people referred to the enslaved Africans as slaves or as Negroes which is another word for black. Over time Negroe changed to the n-word.

So that’s where the word came from, but we need to talk about why it is such a bad word that we don’t ever say the word. I swear a lot and you’ve never heard me use the n-word when I’m angry or frustrated. The n-word is not a swear word like the f-word. It’s a hate word targeted at black people. We never, ever direct it at another person. Not even as a joke.

We don’t because the word is connected to a time in our history when white people thought it was ok to own black people. It wasn’t just that they thought it was ok to buy, sell, and own another person. It was that they thought it was ok to beat them up, to kill them, and to separate families (husbands from wives, children from parents, brothers from sisters). They abused and separated them as a means to keep them under control. 

We no longer have slavery in this country. The laws changed, but there continued to be white people in this country who don’t see black people as equals. They used their power to enforce new ways of oppressing black people. In the South, they passed Jim Crow laws that legalized segregation. Segregation laws enforced the separation of black and white people. You’ll learn a little about this in school. 

The part that you won’t learn in school is that it wasn’t just the southern states that practiced segregation. In the northern states, like here in Illinois, they didn’t pass segregation laws. In Chicago and other cities, there was a practice called red-lining that prevented black people from buying homes outside a red-line. It prevented black families from buying homes in white neighborhoods. It limited black people to specific areas of the city. It wasn’t a law, but it had the same effect as the Jim Crow laws. Segregation and the separation of the races. 

This is only a start. There is so much more to say. I’m ending this post, but not the conversation. More to come…

 

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