How many more times must my 7-year-old be called the “n word”

written by Love Isn’t Enough guest contributor Liz Dwyer; originally posted at Los Angelista’s Guide to the Pursuit of Happiness

It’s Saint Patrick’s Day, which means I rocked it like this…

However, despite my admittedly hardcore Irish pride, my mind these days is on blackness. Specifically, how much I appreciate that black people have come so far despite racist pin-pricks, shank-stabbings and butcher knives in the back. I believe being black is both a gift and a sacred responsibility. Yet, it’s undeniable that not everyone in our world feels the same–and sometimes, they’re not shy about showing it.

I’ve spent the past two days thinking about an incident that happened Tuesday night at my local park. I’d planned to take 10-year-old Mr. O to get a haircut, but by the time I left work (late), and picked up him and his 7-year-old little brother, Mr. T, I realized we wouldn’t get to the barber on time. BUT, thanks to the time change, it’s light outside till well past 7 p.m., so I came up with a fun alternative: heading to our neighborhood park.

The boys were thrilled to swing and jump off the playground equipment–everything was all good, till Mr. T came running over to me, his brows drawn together in a worried scowl.

“That little boy over there in the blue shirt,” he said as he pointed to a kid who was probably 5 or 6-years-old, “is saying bad words and telling me to shut up.”

These days it’s par for the course to hear young children swearing like they’re on an episode of The Jersey Shore, so I told T to just ignore the kid and play on the other side of the playground.

Five minutes later he was back and shaking with outrage. “That kid won’t leave me alone. He told me to shut my trap AND he called me the n-word.”

It’s sad that at 7, my son has already been called the n-word as many times as he has. But every time it happens, my blood just boils. It makes me want to open up a can of whoop ass on his behalf. But since T was looking at me like, “Hey, mature adult? Go fix it!” I reassured him that there’s nothing wrong with him. “Well, clearly that little boy has ISSUES! I’ll let his mom or dad know,” and then set off to track down the boy’s parent.

“Young man, is your mom or dad here?” I asked. The boy replied by pointing to two women standing a bit away from the playground. I wasn’t sure which one was the mom, but I prepped myself for confrontation by installing the most friendly, placid look on my face that I could muster. As I drew nearer, I took in the drawn-on-with-black-eyeliner, pencil-thin eyebrows, the neck tattoos and the dark lipstick with much lighter lip liner. Great. Just great.

“Excuse me ladies,” I began, “Is one of you the parent of that little boy in the blue shirt over there?” I kept my tone neutral, like I was about to say, aww, he just lost his LEGO action figure. One of them stared me down and muttered, “Yeah, that’s my son.”

“OK, well, I’m sorry to have to tell you this but he just told my son to shut his trap and then called him the n-word.”

With the bomb dropped, I expected maybe some defensiveness in her response–after all, what parent is going to be psyched about hearing their child called another kid the n-word? However, what I didn’t anticipate was the narrowing of her eyes, the aggressive change in her posture and her response. “Well, maybe your son IS one.”

The words were said slowly, deliberately, and with a hint of a challenge. She might as well have replied, “Yeah, you black bitch. What are you and your little n-word son gonna do about it?”

It instantly took me to that level of anger where you say to yourself, damn the consequences. I’m gonna beat this heffa’s ass. Except…I took in the tattoos, how her friend’s hands had moved to her pockets, how their posture was completely one of planning to jump ME! And then I remembered, hey, I’m a grown woman and I don’t get into fights, especially not with my kids 50 feet away. So, without saying anything else to her, I turned and walked away.

Mr. T asked me what she’d said and I lied to him. “Oh, she was so upset. She’s gonna take away his Nintendo DS for a month.” I just couldn’t tell him that there would be no consequences for this child’s racism.

I told the boys it was time to go home, and overheard T triumphantly telling his brother, “And mom went over there and told on him and made sure his mom punished him!”

And that’s when I began to feel like a failure. Like I should’ve made sure that mom punished her son. Or, if not, at least I should’ve told her, no, my son isn’t a n-word. But, I was afraid.

Once home, I headed to the bathroom, completely depressed. I shut the door and sat in there, tears rolling down my cheeks. I didn’t want my sons to see me cry, didn’t want to hear them asking, “Mommy, what’s wrong?”

I felt like, wow, I should’ve done more, said more. Yes, I know that nothing I could’ve said to her would have made a difference. Nothing would have made her have an epiphany and realize, “You’re so right. Your son isn’t a n-word. That was totally wrong to say he is one.”

As I sat in that bathroom, it also hit me, wow, my kid is only 7. How much more of this ish is coming our way? How many more years of kids calling him the n-word? How many more years of both subtle and overt racism will we just have to turn the other cheek on and walk away from? There will probably never be a year in his childhood or youth when he won’t be affected by racism. I don’t know how I will not go crazy. How have generations of black moms and dads not simply gone nuts knowing what’s coming for their kids?

I am raising two black males in Los Angeles in the 21st century. No, they aren’t getting treated like Emmett Till, but that doesn’t make the things that happen to them–the things that are said to them–any better. I’m sick of it, sick of people being racist and then when you bring it to their attention, they blame YOU for it and act like YOU are the problem.

I wonder…how many more times must my child be called the n-word? How many more times will I have to hear him say, as he had in some instances, “I kinda got the feeling that they were being mean to me because I’m black.” And, what can I do–what can we all do–about it?

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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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