THE N-WORD

The prosecutor [Christopher Darden], his voice trembling, added that the “N-word” was so vile that he would not utter it. “It’s the filthiest, dirtiest, nastiest word in the English language.”

–Kenneth B. Noble, January 14, 1995 The New York Times

That’s pretty much what I think of it, too. I have never said the N-word. Not even once.

So imagine my horror when, as my nine-year old son was playing his DSI on our couch, he let it slip from his lips. Six times. I was chopping onions for dinner. At first I thought I hadn’t heard him right, so I kept chopping. But there was no mistaking it the fourth time he said it.

My mind started to race over how to best deal with the situation. It was one of those defining moments that I didn’t want to screw up, because it was so important that I handle it right. Like when my son asked me what was inside his testicles and I wanted to tell him “marshmallows” so I could avoid where the conversation was undoubtedly going to go. But sex is one of those topics where, as soon as you introduce silly euphemisms like wee-wee and va-jay-jay and the stork, you’re just setting your kids up for future sexual dysfunction.

I stopped chopping and went over to my son. “Where did you hear that word?” I asked. His black friend had said it. His black friend had called their other friend, who is Mexican, the N-word, which didn’t make any sense to me, but trying to get accurate information out of my son is like trying to coax eggs out of a rooster.

My son is a skinny, blonde, pale white boy. And while it may seem like a party at the United Nations where we live, I had to explain to him in not-so-delicate terms that he would get his ass kicked by a black person if anyone heard him say that word.

“What does it mean?” he asked.

I had to admit I didn’t actually know. “It’s an ugly word for black people,” I told him. “It’s racist.”

“What does that mean?” he asked.

(That was another conversation we needed to have, but not at that moment.)

“It’s derogatory,” I said.

“What’s that mean?”

“The people who use that word are ignorant.” He looked at me like I had two heads. I tried again. “They’re ghetto?”

“What’s ghetto?”

“Oh, for the love of God, anyone who uses that word has no class! It’s disrespectful, and it makes a person seem ‘not intelligent.’”

Finally, he seemed to get it.

Except that he uttered the word a mere five minutes later. I’m sure he was fascinated by the fact that it was a forbidden word, and that his black friend had thrown it out numerous times that day. Maybe if a word is said enough times without any significance attached to it, the word ceases to be important. But that experiment was not going to be attempted in my home.

I looked my son directly in the eye and said, “I don’t want that word said in this house again. I don’t like it. It’s an ugly word. It’s not okay.”

I considered going to talk to the black boy’s mother; I thought about not letting my son play anymore with the boy, who is a few years older. Finally, after a few days to cool off, I had a little talk with the boy myself. I asked him if his mother used the N-word. When he told me she didn’t, I asked if she knew that he used it. Again, negative.

He didn’t seem to have a firm grasp of the meaning of the word either, because he said both white and black kids say it at school all the time. Excuse me? Is it a socially acceptable word now, like dude or Hey, girlfriend? A form of endearment?

I wasn’t going to argue semantics with a twelve-year old, so I explained to him that little white boys like my son will get beat up if they used that word; that no white person should use the word, except maybe Eminem, and even then it still might be offensive to some.

“It’s not a nice word. Please don’t use it around my son, ok?” He agreed. Time will tell whether what I said went in one ear and out the other.

I can’t wait to have THE TALK about where babies come from. Let’s hope my son doesn’t hear about it from his friends first.

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