The “N” Word: The Third Rail of White Parenting?

talking with children about race, parenting, the N word

An older boy sauntered over to the high monkey bars and proceeded to do an impressive number of chin-ups. A digital music player was in his pocket and an R&B tune I didn’t know was blaring. It took a moment for me to process what I was hearing. The N word, sung over and over.

Half a dozen kids climbed and slid on the playground along with my two boys. The nearby benches were occupied so I sat with my back against a straight and slender tree and watched.

The boys are almost six and almost four. Old enough to need much less policing than a year ago, young enough to require a firm reminder not to hit other kids. To be fair, the older one didn’t need that reminder. But I did have to pull him aside after he muscled his way over a girl climbing a ladder. “Dude, you cannot just run her over. You need to wait your turn.”

He has been on this earth for just under six years. Already he is sure of his place in this world, eager to take up space and railroad whoever gets in his way. I’m grateful for his confidence. At the same time I’m wary of it. He isn’t just a white boy; he is a blue-eyed, light haired white boy. Comfortably occupying space in this world is something he will have to fight not to take for granted for his whole life.

My two white boys played with and around and with half a dozen other kids. Black kids, mostly. The parents weren’t making small talk with strangers. Two ladies there together chatted on a bench. A father had his arm around his daughter on the other bench; they watched quietly. My husband sat beside me and we watched our son hang upside down from the low monkey bar, stretching fingers with all his might towards the ground before falling in a heap, and bounding up to try it again and again.

The kids on the playground were doing a great job without parental input. The parents weren’t chatting, but it was very comfortable. We relaxed and watched our kids and I idly thought about the dinner I’d be making in a few minutes.

An older boy, probably ten, sauntered over to the high monkey bars and proceeded to do an impressive number of chin-ups. He knew the ladies on the bench and many of the kids. A digital music player was in his pocket and an R&B tune I didn’t know was blaring. It took a moment for me to process what I was hearing. The N word, sung over and over. I looked at my boys, who seemed oblivious to both my panic and the music. I looked at the other kids playing who also didn’t seem to notice the song. And I looked at the adults. Poker faces all around.

I don’t want my kids to live in a bubble of “idyllic childhood.” They are growing up with tremendous privilege, and I do want them to understand that fact. So much of what they have is based on being born white kids in 21st century America. Disgusting, but true.

They hear NPR every time we are in the car and my eldest asks a lot of hard questions. We have discussed how some police treat people unfairly who they are supposed to protect. We have discussed the history of slavery in America. We have talked about why mommy and daddy hate guns. We have cheered when gay marriage became legal in all 50 states. There are kids my boys’ age living through terrible horrors all over the world. Which makes me think my boys are not too young to learn how hard others have it and how lucky they are.

My privileged kids are going to hear all sorts of things I don’t want them to hear on the playground. That is life. Hopefully they will come to me and we can talk it out.

But. The N word. We haven’t yet touched on the N word with the boys. I don’t want them to be hearing it on the playground with kids running around who are even younger than they are.

It was almost dinnertime; reasonable to tell the boys they had two more turns going down the fireman pole before heading home. The N word grew softer as we walked towards our car. I felt relief. And shame.

White people don’t like to talk about race in America. After this terrible, violent, heartbreaking year we are starting to understanding we have to. I read every article that comes across my Facebook feed on how to be an ally. I am constantly aware of my privilege and how much easier it makes my life.

And yet I don’t know what do to when a ten-year-old plays a song with the N word repeated over and over on the playground. I don’t know how to process the fact that the other parents seem comfortable with his actions. I don’t know what I should have done, but I feel like a coward for being chased away by a word that makes me so uncomfortable that I can hardly bear to hear it spoken out loud.

Karen Cordano is a stay-at-home-mother, wife, writer, baker, and owner/operator of one hell of an anxiety disorder. She lives in the Snowiest City in America.

Image via Public Domain Images

  • lisasolod

    That is a tough one.

  • Lezlie Bishop

    I read this earlier and have given it a lot of thought. I need to clarify a few things for you. The song you are talking about is not an R&B song, it is a rap song. The word you heard was not nigger but nigga. Yes, I know how ridiculous that must sound to you, but it is the truth. Rappers believe they have taken the power out of the original word by commandeering it, tweaking the spelling and using it as a synonym for guy or man or brotha. To them, it is a problematic term of endearment.

    Your children are quite young. I doubt they even heard the words that seemed to you to be blaring. You are sensitized to the word; they are not. To them it was probably just another background noise.

    However — unless you plan to keep the kids in a bubble, soon they WILL hear it. When they do, they’ll need to know how to handle it. If they don’t know, they are likely to use it innocently and get themselves into trouble, either with school authorities or with the black kids who probably have been taught that white people can’t use the word (whether we like it or not, that’s what they think.)

    You say you have discussed the history of slavery with them. It’s difficult to have that discussion without somehow alluding to its wrongness. Africans were kidnapped, brought here and forced to work for free. In order to keep their consciences at bay, slave owners had to dehumanize the Africans to a subhuman level. They were stripped of their names, their languages, their religions. Many were separated at will from their spouses and their children. All of that, and then, just to remind the slaves at every chance that they were worthless except for work and breeding,they devised a name for them: nigger. Today, that word is hurtful to the descendants of those slaves. It is one of those words that should never be said, period, unless you are actually discussing the history of the word itself.

    The song also mentions bitches, another word that has taken on an extremely deleterious life of its own in the rap/hiphop culture. The misogyny employed by that crew is despicable — JUST as despicable as nigger. Your kids will hear that, too.

    We like to keep our babies babies as long as possible, but we can’t allow them to enter the outside world unprepared. The next I am sure they have heard either or both, I would let then know it’s a “bad” word and why, just as you would for the words “shit” or “fuck.” I wouldn’t give the words too much power by acting as if I am embarrassed or upset. Just matter of fact.

    I hope you find this helpful. I know a lot about this subject and it is far from easy.

  • tamarz

    Not sure what I would have done either. As a caring parent and a person with a social conscience, you do the best you can — which is exactly what you did.

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