I told you this would happen—said it was as certain as wet rain, as sure as the yellow in the sun. A white child called a black boy very near and dear to our family a nigger*.
The “who did it” and the “whom it got done to” and the specifics on how it all went down aren’t for me to tell. Just know that it happened out on the playground during recess after our beloved bested the white boy in a foot race. Upset that he got creamed in a challenge he issued, the white child looked our beloved in the eye and let the most offensive racial slur you can call a black person, punctuated with the “F” bomb for emphasis, fly.
Our beloved, wanting to make absolutely sure he’d heard the boy correctly, asked, “What did you say?” The white boy, wanting to make absolutely sure that there was no confusion about what he said, repeated himself: “F&*#ing Nigger.”
Know that our beloved put the little foul-mouthed fool in a headlock.
Know that had the playground monitor not broken it up, the little foul-mouthed fool would have gotten his ass kicked.
I’ve gone over in my mind for years what I would do, how I would respond on the day that someone hurls that ugly, searing word at one of my brown babies. On my most idealistic days, I’ve assured myself that I would tell my children that it’s the other kid who has the problem, not us—that there are sick people in the world who, for whatever reason, will stupidly employ skin color as a reason for disliking, even hating, another human being and will toss out racial epithets because they’re too damn weak, dim, and insecure to hurt us in any other meaningful way.
But I wasn’t feeling very idealistic that day. And when my Mari got home and the story was recounted, I told her that if any child ever called her a “f&*#ing nigger,” she had my permission to knock her dead in the mouth. Because when I’m not Denene Millner the Parenting columnist and best-selling author, I’m Denene Millner-Chiles, African-American mom of Mari and Lila, two beautiful, chocolate pies who deserve and will get their respect. While my parents didn’t give me the tools to understand and deal with being called a nigger when I was little, the Chiles girls are very clear on what to do the day it happens to them. Those two words, especially when paired together, are fighting words. Period. And I’m a firm believer that those whose mouths choose to write that particular check better have an ass ready and able to cash it.
Word is bond.
But you know what’s most upsetting about this, friends? It’s that The Incident happened in a safe place, a space where Nick and I and our beloved’s parents send our kids because most parents who send their kids there seem to be forward-thinking, kind, progressive and tolerant. I’m still prone to believe this. I want to. Need to. But I know for sure, now, that there is immense danger in “safe.” Because in “safe,” everyone seems to delude themselves into believing that there are no problems, that everything is fine and dandy, that these kinds of things don’t need to be held up to the light and examined and dissected and discussed before the one says something crazy to the other and the other forces the one into meting out a Five Knuckle Shuffle out on the playground.
Dig it: I don’t know what’s in that child’s heart—if he truly is a racist, if he’s being raised by racists, if his grandfather or his auntie or his neighbors play fast and loose with the “N” word or he heard it in a Lil’ Wayne song and thought he’d try it out on our beloved. What I do know is that clearly, the boy has had the word on his mind and nobody is talking to him—really talking to him—about race and its legacy or the “N” word and its sting in any meaningful way.
This is typical. In their book NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children, authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman say that babies as young as 6 months old judge others based on skin color and that well-meaning parents do their children a huge disservice when they cloak real historical and cultural issues in vague platitudes—“God made all of us,” and “Under the skin, we’re all the same,” and “Everyone is equal”—instead of taking on the topic of race head-on. The authors also point out that, according to a 2007 study of 17,000 families, non-white parents are three times more likely to discuss race, while 75 percent of white parents never, or almost never, talk about race. What’s worse, they say, is that by the time parents consider their kids “old enough” to dig into the topic, they may have already created divisions of their own.
Which means that while I’m home with my daughters breaking down the nasty particulars of racism and teaching them how to distinguish between people who really like them for them and jerks who don’t deserve their awesome, other parents are sending their kids out into the world completely clueless to the fact that yelling “nigger” at a another kid is not only foul, stupid, and racist but could get your ass beat.
My two cents? It’s all of our responsibility—black, white, Latino, Asian, Russian, African, whatever—to raise unbigoted, tolerant, open-minded, empathetic people, and one of the best ways to do this is for us parents, all of us parents, to actually TALK ABOUT RACE in the same way we do naturally about other family values we think important enough to talk to our kids about, like the importance of boys respecting girls, not making fun of fat people and the disabled, being kind to old people and things like that. It’s time for all of us to take our heads out of the sand and deal with this—understand that we’re not going to live in a better society until we teach our children how to understand and truly care about the people who actually live in it with all of us. Because each time one of us falls down on the job, it impacts everybody.
And really, I’d prefer my kids not have to bust up your kids because you didn’t teach him better. Or at all.
Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.