More than a bad word: Explaining the power and context of “the N word”

Crossposted from Intercultural Talk

My 7 year old learned “the N-word” a few weeks ago, and was immediately told that it was bad, 1.) Because he would get beat up if he used it (explanation from my dad) and 2.) It was just a bad word, “Like the F-word” (explanation from me).  I was left with a fear from both of these explanations that 1.) He would think that talking about prejudice and racism was bad, and 2.) That, as with the F-word, it’s a bad word, but it’s okay to use if you are really mad (not sure WHERE he would get that idea…).    All of this came about after my dad innocently shared one of his books from childhood, the Mark Twain Classic, Huckleberry Finn.*  

Since that day I’ve been nagged by an urgent need for a better explanation-saying something is “bad” or “off-limits” to a child seems like a sure-fire way to tempt him or her to use it, if nothing else just to test you.

Luckily, I had a little ‘divine’ intervention.  My preview last week about the upcoming N-word entry was pinged by a site, theunitedvoices.com.  That site led to a link to banthenword.org, and from there a link titled N-word defined, which led to the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia and an article entitled “Nigger and Caricatures.”

The article initially reminded me of Eddie Murphy’s preacher character in the movie Coming to America, with its seemingly lascivious and liberal use of the N word and others like it in supposedly very matter of fact historical descriptions. While I was uncomfortable reading the article, I realized that it did give me the context to revisit the conversation with my child.

As a second grader, he knows about Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Tubman, slavery and the civil war.  In 7 year old terms, he can understand that ‘nigger’ was a word used by mean slave owners to make slaves feel bad, and that he would never want people to think he had the heart of a slave owner, nor would he want to say something that would make someone feel so awful about themselves. 

“Do you understand?” I asked, thinking my work was done.  “Just one question,” he responded.  “Why does it still matter when there’s no slavery?”  “That’s a great question, L, my generation hasn’t done such a great job, but maybe by the time you grow up racism will have ended and it won’t matter,” I answered with great hope for the future.  Until I woke up in the middle of the night thinking, “Oh my goodness, did he ask that because of white privilege?” 

And so my work continues.  As the Jim Crow Museum states in their values, “Some people claim that race relations are worsened by discussing them.  We disagree.  Rather, we agree with the Reverend Martin Luther King’s assertion that “time is neutral.”  Social problems cannot solve themselves.  We confront racism-publicly, continually, and relentlessly.”  I would only add, “In public and in the home.”

*While Huckleberry Finn has appeared on many a ‘banned-book’ list over the years, according to the Huck Finn teacher’s guide on pbs.org, “Although state NAACP organizations have supported various protests against the book, the NAACP national headquarters’ current position paper states:  ”You don’t ban Mark Twain-you explain Mark Twain! To study an idea is not necessarily to endorse the idea. Mark Twain’s satirical novel, Huckleberry Finn, accurately portrays a time in history-the nineteenth century-and one of its evils, slavery.”

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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