Fighting Words: On the N Word & My Children’s Response To It

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.

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Denene Millner

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.

27 Comments

  1. well gone then!!!

    no…im with you…that’s never ever ever going to be ok.

  2. Denene,

    Just read it and am not real sure I agree, but give me some time to think and I will respond.

    ODC

  3. I do not look forward to the day that this happens to my family. And, as much as I want to believe that “things” will be better by then, we all know that in reality, racism will always be there. It breaks my heart. To see a child’s spirit and love for life get stomped on like that. ugh. Truthfully–I will try to teach my kids to walk away tall–but if there’s a little smack down before they are able to leave, I will be there to support them. If I heard it from my own ears, I would be stepping in too, mother bear instinct, not always the best thing….but always there.

  4. I will have to respectfully disagree. Not sure what the right response would be, but violence truly shows nothing more that an animalistic response. And in a situation like explained above, seems like that would be a lose-lose situation.

    • Denene@MyBrownBaby

      @Lifelong Learner: I respect that point of view, please believe me, I do. Indeed, this is how my husband feels about it. And, ironically, my daughter Mari, who said that the person who said the word is someone who wouldn’t deserve the effort it would take for her to swing. (My girl!) But, much like Jodi says, should my daughters ever feel the need to to respond with a fist to someone who calls them something so disrespectful, so vile, so downright unforgivably ugly, I wouldn’t be mad if they ended up in the principal’s office for slapping the taste out of the offender’s mouth.

  5. It’s still shocking, even when you are expecting it, no? Certainly not the same as the F-in N-word, but I remember getting “ching-chonged” as a young adult and just not believing it, at first. By the time I recovered, the perpetrators were gone — into the dorm where I lived. I never figured out who it was. I’ve always puzzled over the fact that there is no real equivalent for a F-in Caucasian in our language. “Honky” just does not carry the same weight.

    • Denene@MyBrownBaby

      @OyamaMama: YES! Definitely shocking. And then infuriating. I remember the first time it happened to me, I didn’t even know what the word meant, and the second time, I was so scared for my life that I ran (a pack of about 15 girls in my Girl Scouts troop. Yeah.). The third time, when I hit college, I was shocked. Just… shocked. All times after that, I’ve given it back just as hard as it was given. I’m sure it’ll be the same way for my babies; each of us responds differently. But if their choice is to pop the person who said it, I’m behind them 100%. And yeah, it IS weird that there’s no equivalent to the words that have been made up to hurt so many different people of color…

      • Well, there certainly is an equivalent word for Mexicans- “spic” is a disgustingly vile word and filled with as much hate as the “N” word.. “Wetback” is a close second. There is also “kike” for Jews. There are disgusting words for many different races and ethnicities, and all of them are intended to hurt and marginalize the insulted people.

        I am so sorry that your family is having to deal with this now. My girlfriend’s son just came home from school on Thursday dealing with the same thing. Thankfully my kids haven’t had to deal with it yet, but I am sure the day will come soon. I personally do not encourage my children to meet this type of ignorance with violence, but I would not be upset with them if they did.

        Much love to you and your family.

  6. Denene,

    I wrote about my experiences as a kid a while ago. Back then, my father’s advice was “just ignore it”, but I couldn’t. So, my response…twice…was to open up a can of whoop ass on the boy. (A different one each time.) I do hope my child will be able to handle the situation more gracefully, but I do feel better knowing that he inherited his mama’s can of whoop ass…just in case. Now, let me go meditate on peace. Wooosah.

  7. This is my first time posting, but I wholeheartedly agree with you. Period. I long ago learned that many humans don’t understand big words (or hell, even small ones). Especially where the person is bold enough to repeat himself/herself…all bets are off. And I’ll sign whatever discipline papers there are and go watch Malcolm X with my child.

  8. Kia Morgan Smith

    I read the rest of the post on Parenting.com and I agree that parents DO need to explain to children how we all are different and unique and not use the “we’re all the same under the skin approach” because that doesn’t fly. I remember after my first day of Kindergarten, I went home and asked my mom why I didn’t have “yellow” hair. I didn’t understand why my hair wasn’t blonde and flowing. And I bet the white kids in my class were scratching their heads bec they probably never saw a brown girl with afro puffs like me. We need to have these meaningful conversations with our kids about how we are different and it doesn’t mean we are better or someone else is lesser. And we certainly shouldn’t be throwing around ugly epitaphs to hurt someone because they’ve got the best of us. That child’s parents defintely didn’t explain that you win some and u lose some and they didn’t teach what good sportsmanship is all about. I hope you had a conversation with the parents because it sounds like you and Nick need to learn em’ a little sumthin, sumthin!

  9. Sometimes you have to respond with a fist. Words aren’t enough.

  10. What a shame…that its 2011 and brown-skinned people are still getting called the N word. Even more shameful is that its coming from a child. My mother always told me that babies aren’t born with prejudice, it is taught to them. I live in a part of the world where light-skin is coveted and dark-skinned people are looked down upon. I have had to explain to my son that God creates that all people are created beautiful and the color of your skin does not make you better than the next person. He will be going to school this year and I need to prepare him for bad mannered kids with loose tongues. I think I’ll be discussing race with him. Thanks for this article!

  11. Barbara Soloski Albin

    That child will have the names prepared for all the people that he has been taught to hate, the first of many words that will spew from his mouth. Parents use these words in the house, children repeat them, didn’t grow up with that word but grew up with plenty of others hurled as we were walking to Temple. Hate just keeps on, generation to generation unless someone gets to that child and changes his/her life!

  12. divaliscious11

    Word.

  13. UGH! Horrible! This post made me think about what I need to tell my girls about race when they get older. I hope that they won’t have to experience that. My husband uses that word although he uses it with the ‘a’ instead of ‘er’ and it drives me crazy! He says black people took it from ‘my’ people(I’m white and hes black) and turned it into something ‘positive’. We are constantly arguing over the use of the word in front of our kids. He doesn’t use it as much around the kids anymore but most of it comes from the music he listens to so he says I just don’t like his music. Really though I don’t think the language is appropriate for the kids and not just for the use of the ‘n’ word. But hes constantly telling me its not a bad word and that makes me sooo irritated with him sometimes!

  14. I definitely feel you Denene. I remember the first time the word was hurled at me (and a friend) by a white classmate. In the end, he was lucky that his consequence did not include him tumbling down the flight of stairs we were all standing at the top of. But he was quickly knocked off of his high horse. And I understand some people feeling that a response in a physical manner promotes more hate. However, I see it a little differently. Yes, the word is rooted in centuries of hate, but there is another word to go with the word hate and it is inferiority. The n-word is also a tool used to try to project inferiority on use as people (usually because the person using it feels inferior and thinks it will make him feel more superior). And I think in this case, inferiority was definitely at work. After being defeated, the white child obviously felt inferior. He tried to deflect that inferiority on to your beloved family friend by throwing that n-word at him. And the young brother responded by displaying (again) that he was not inferior to the white kid. Just so happen, the second display cost the white child a lot more than the first. So, I dont think (in this case) by opening that can of whoop ass that the little brother was responding with more hate. I think he was combatting the ugly head of an inferiority/superiority complex as it tried to imply that he was less than and underneath the little boy who had just eaten his dust in that foot race.

  15. reading the comments and reflecting on the posting makes me think about the many ways that people of color are the ones put in the position of having to ignore racist comments or be the better person or nursemaid ignorant white people into becoming (more) humane…is it fair for people of color to carry that responsibility? and further, is is fair to ask children to?

    this issue is complex and involve race (or ethnicity or culture) and class (at times); teaching children and them learning how to discern which battles to fight and which ones to leave alone; helping children of color to have confidence, good decision-making skills, the willingness to work hard and earn their way in a country that favors white people.

    but then it is quite simple. baby girl’s soul was assaulted by such profanity, such vicious name-calling. and she knew deep down that something was very wrong with what she was called. and as a child, she responded very directly to halt that assault. she responded in such a way as to send the message that such verbal violence was wrong and it would not be tolerated. she stood up for herself. and if handled in the right way now (by parents, teachers, etc.), she will be able to stand tall in other difficult situations as she ages. as for the other child. perhaps she/he will have learned a lesson too. but it would take parents committed to anti-racist parenting to drive home the lessons. and how is the school handling it? such sentiment only gets worse over time – as the young people get older – if it is not dealt with early.

    just my 2 cents. thanks to all for the discussion on this…

  16. I’ve been thinking a lot about your last comment- it is fair for children to carry the responsibility of ignoring racist comments. When I think about my son being called the N word, and just having to “deal with it,” my heart rate increases ten-fold. Much more the fighter than my husband, I tend to lean the direction that was shared in the initial post. Wouldn’t one big punch in the face do some good in this situation? Why shouldn’t the white kid get to experience some of the pain?

    I look forward to reading more thoughts as they come through. Also, my sincere apologies for this situation happening to your kid. It’s just not right.

  17. I wish I had something better to say than I am so sorry your sweet child has to deal with this, but I have nothing beyond that. I am sorry.

  18. I’m so appreciative of the fact that you shared this story here AND on Parenting, Denene! Thank you. These conversations need to be had, and they need to be had out loud. I’m with you; there are certain words that (in my opinion) bring with them the full brunt of unfiltered emotion–those words are on that list.

    My hope is that if that happens to my daughters, they handle it the way my then-5 yr old handled it when someone called her “scary little black girl”; she explained, she educated, and she forgave, and I will forever respect her for that. HOWEVER, had she socked the girl in the face out of anger/frustration/even fear–I would understand. Not agree, but definitely understand.

  19. When it was my brown kid turn, after I had to defend him and told the boys mother what had happened during her absence, she answered : Ok, I won’t talk again about this issue so to not overcharge it…(overcharge= make my child think about what comes out of his mouth) I WAS ANGRY and thought: ok, so tonight as many nights of our life, we have to spend time on talking, reassuring, building up self-consciousness, and so on and you tell me you can’t spend five minutes on making your child at least a bit more senistive and polite?
    BUT I DID NOT SAY IT…THIS WAS MY ISSUE… I need to get stronger too…and fast with short answers, that are net and clear….

  20. I had a similar situation happen this week. I know this is an old post but would appreciate any perspective anyone is willing to give. I’m a white male and my wife is mixed white/black. We have 3 children together, 11, 8, and 5. I was at boyscout camp with my oldest son. I wasn’t present for the situation but my son told me about it the following day. Apparently he was trash talking with another boy who is white that he has known for 5 years. My son said the boy said “you’re moms a ni****”. My son insist he didn’t day anything terrible to provoke it. Now nothing my son could have said makes it ok for the boy to referrence my wife that way but I wanted to see figure out how this escalated. I didn’t say anything to the boy but did tell his father who assured me he would address it. I did not tell my wife but when my son got home a few days later he did. She’s is extremely upset with how I handled the situation and is so upset with me she hadn’t spoken to me all day. What should I have done differently? I know now I should have told her it happened because i think part of it she heard it from our son and not me.

  21. I need some advice from all races! I am white so is my husband and obviously my children. Well I have a five year old son that I have always taught no color. What I mean by that is people are people and I do not label anyone. Well my son plays with this kid across the street and his family (white) is a bit rough! Have never been crazy about the two playing but my son likes him so I just try and monitor them closer. Well the other day they were playing at another friends house also (white) and my son called the little girl a n$*$*%#! Her mom texted me and told me this which came as a big surprise because my son has never heard that word at least not by his family.
    Found out that this little boy across the street calls his grandpa that word and vise versa! I told my son he is no longer able to play with him. I asked my innocent five year old if he new what that word meant and of course he did not. Am I doing the right thing? Please give me some input. Thank you!
    We can only turn racism around starting with our children!

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