"Words have power. Words are more than their dictionary definition. The history of a word matters as long as the effects of that history are still felt."
- Ijeoma Oluo
Despite having procreated multiple times for the nearly express purpose of giving my children built-in playmates; our boys are often seeking to foster outside friendships. I frequently hear from parents of ECC classmates, asking for playdates; or from the kids themselves, begging me to call ‘so-and-so’s mom.’ And it’s lovely, because as growing little people, socialization is really important...and the fact that our kids are sought out by their peers is affirming that the borderline-sociopathic behaviors we frequently see in the living room must be limited to the home setting and reserved for immediate family.
As our own pre-kid friends are increasingly swallowed up by their own children’s schedules (or busy enjoying the benefits that child-free life has to offer); my husband and I find it harder and harder to connect with them.
Like most parents at this life stage, we are staring down a whole new phase of social interactions. Saturdays previously spent at wineries now find us producing small talk with acquaintances on the sidelines of soccer fields or hovering over bobbing heads and paper plates with half-eaten birthday cake slices. Happy hours are now spent playing math games at the kitchen table or at Scout meetings. It’s truly a new life.
I personally really enjoy the act of finding a new friend and relish my children’s relative extraversion. And so, I find myself happily storing new numbers in my phone accompanied by notes like: ‘Annabelle’s mom’ and have become accustomed to texting with relative strangers about nearby playgrounds and weekend schedules.
Cultivating new friendships as a parent means navigating along difficult terrain. Grownups are complicated creatures and those with offspring come with literal baggage (diaper bags are no joke), restricting schedules, and limited remaining emotional bandwidth. It’s hard to morph from the small-talk phase into what might be considered an actual friendship.
And so, it’s s real pleasure to stumble across another parent with whom I feel a genuine connection. I’m grateful though, that it does happen from time to time. That was the case with a woman whom I began encountering with some regularity in both parent and non-parent spaces (those do, happily, still exist for me). She also has a first-grade boy at the ECC and we bonded early over their inexplicable love of potty words, seemingly un-ending energy, and the surprising difficulties of disentangling them from video games.
Of note: She and her son are black.
Hang with me. This is a relevant note.
I have moved in mostly white spaces my entire life. This was not a conscious play on my part, but I’m quite certain that my subconscious biases are at least partly to blame. My friends of color have been, therefore, few and far between and I feel ashamed by that.
And to be very clear, I am *not* looking for a pat on the back in response to my somewhat intentional effort to seek out a more diverse field of friendships.
It is also notable that this particular new friendship has been inspired first and foremost by the fact that this woman is a smart, funny, honest, hard-working and successful mama who’s company I sincerely enjoy. She is a woman who has spent her career advocating, at all levels of government, for social change in what I find to be vitally important areas and I simply could not have more respect for her as a female and exemplary human person. Also, her texting game is on point, and I respect the hell out of that too.
But while my budding mom-friendship is relevant and some the details should be noted; it is not ultimately the thesis of this post.
I only need you to understand the basic nature of this friendship and this particular amazing woman, in order to properly talk about this:
That time my white five-year-old son said the N-word.
In front of a black friend.
And I want to talk about how I fucked up, and then fucked up again in my response. I want to talk about how this shameful moment has triggered my desire to talk to you about it; rather than tuck it away in the dirty, rarely-visited corner of my mind that houses all the horribly embarrassing and regrettable moments of my life.
If you know me personally, or have read even just one other post by me; you probably know that I fancy myself at least a little bit ‘woke.’ I am an insufferable proponent of social justice and equity; I am a shameless feminist and I am opinionated to a fault. I have tried--and often failed--to talk about race in a meaningful way for the past few years with anyone willing (and even a few who were ultimately unwilling). I have read about, discussed, and put into action many tactical strategies of raising children who are inclusive and big-hearted (including enrolling in the amazing local program; We Stories).
And yet; my beloved son said the N-word.
In front of a black friend.
To put it in context: it was a lazy afternoon over the winter holiday break and my sons and their friend were all stumbling over each other, moving as a buzzing herd of unfocused energy. With my kids leading the way, they dismantling the futile order of one room after the next. There was nothing at all atypical about the thumping state of chaos that eventually worked its way upstairs.
I was chatting on the couch with my friend, catching up about the holidays and lamenting the upcoming return to reality when the tattle-tailing started. This is not a new occurrence; the kids have been policing each other’s behavior and happily ratting one another out since the moment the learned to speak in full sentences.
First, came the reports of name-calling. The word ‘dumb’ had apparently been bantered about and therefore, I gave a quick, gentle reminder to all about respect and language and returned to the couch.
The next time the sound of a 6-year-old on the steps was heard, I allowed my husband to intercept and hear the testimony of the key witness against his brother. What I heard next made my heart skip at least three beats.
‘...and said the N-word.’
I can’t remember how long I hesitated before I got up, but it was too long I think. I do know that I did not look at my friend. Heart pounding and face devoid of blood, I calmly joined my husband to reiterate the rules on language and said absolutely nothing further. Not to the boys and not to my friend. I simply behaved as if there was ‘nothing to see here.’
Still, my mind raced:
Surely, he didn’t mean *the* N-word.
My kids don’t know racial slurs.
This is all just a hilarious misunderstanding we will laugh about later.
Ha. Ha. Ha...?
The play date wrapped up soon after the incident; and I was quite inclined to put it all in the past and move on with my life, happily restoring business-as-usual. Such a typical white-lady inclination.
But it nagged at me. As it should. We relayed the story later that night to another (white) couple, laughing nervously and all of us deciding kids say the darnedest things; but not racial slurs. It was all shaping up to be that funny misunderstanding I had been hoping for.
The next morning, as coolly and chill as possible, I asked my son what the N-word was. He gave me a smile I have come to be familiar with; it’s the one he uses when he’s in trouble often responds by laughing inappropriately. He paused with that smile, then giggled and said: ‘nah nah.’
Phew, I thought. Despite the smile, pause, and wholly implausible explanation; I believed him.
Or, I really wanted to believe him.
I launched into a very brief tutorial on how there was *another* N-word that was used to make black people feel bad and that he should be really careful about saying what he thought were nonsense words.
He asked me what that other word was; and I choked. I couldn’t bring myself to say it aloud and so I didn’t.
And I didn’t need to, right?
And so, I gave myself a little high-five for my woke-parenting and moved on with the day.
Later, knowing that I really also needed to connect with my friend, I sent her a text thanking her for the play date and assuring her I’d talked to my kiddo about racial slurs and it was all just a silly misunderstanding.
I died a little inside with every agonizing moment spent waiting for what turned out to be the absolute, most prefect, most heart-breaking response from a woman who deserves to be awarded the highest of all parenting and friendship honors.
In a lengthy text, she gently divulged her own difficult parenting conversation; in which she had learned that my son *had* in fact used the N-word.
The real, actual N-word.
It was a word that her son was indeed familiar with, having heard it through various forms of media. She then gracefully spared my poor, delicate white ego by also assuring me that she was certain the boys were just pushing boundaries on language and that her son was not hurt in any way by it. She even graciously offered to talk more about the situation IRL.
Then, the real kick in the pants came when she told me that he was reluctant to say anything because he didn’t want *me* to ‘feel sad.’
This sweet 6-year-old empath, when confronted by language used to suppress, dehumanize, abuse (and worse) those who looked like him for centuries, wanted to spare the feelings of a 36-year-old mother of three.
Of course my child didn’t want inflict harm on his friend. And of course my kindergartener didn’t understand the full context of racial slurs and oppression.
But I realized all in one moment that I had not done my own children any justice by my inclination to give them the benefit of the doubt and glaze over the topic entirely. By assuming ‘my kid could NEVER...’ I was offering him and those around him a complete disservice.
I have learned that our kids pick up quickly on our discomfort when talking about race and just like that, their innate feelings of curious skepticism about those who look and/or sound different is reinforced: Talking about race is bad = Those black and brown kids must also be bad.
My generation of white people was raised to be ‘color blind.’ Our parents had witnessed the tail end of the Civil Rights movement, declared racism defeated, and decided it was best to just tell us everyone is the same and leave it at that. We don’t like being uncomfortable, the subject makes us uncomfortable; so let’s just put a pin in it.
And this color-blindness persists. I can’t tell you how many of my friends have bragged to me about their kids not seeming to even notice race, or remarked with shame and horror about how a toddler pointed out a different skin color, leaving them (understandably) fumbling for how to address that moment.
Kids do notice race. Babies do. Toddlers do. And by four-years-old, they've already started self-segregating. If we continue to bury the topic deep enough and blow a big enough bubble of taboo around it, you run the real risk that someday your son is featured in a viral video wearing an inappropriate smirk that people can’t seem to stop talking about. And the sort of PR firms needed to recover from those moments don’t come cheap.
It is my absolute worst nightmare that one day I’ll wake up to find that my precious babies have been swallowed whole by the overwhelming ignorance and indignant smugness that fueled those sheltered boys from Kentucky. It seems unlikely that those parents spent much time talking to their kids about race, gender and privilege. They certainly failed to mention to their kids that their whiteness means something in the world.
These parents are quick to rescue their children from harm (an impulse we all understand); but don’t seem to understand that this cloud of protection is actually inflicting a larger harm.
A white person who is never taught to fully understand the complexities of racial oppression is doomed to continue to inflict that damage on levels both small and large and we all suffer for that. Our cities suffer, our schools suffer, our economies suffer and the impact is compounding and feels damn near insurmountable.
I was not going to be that mom.
And so, I read some articles, dug into a new book, and revisited the topic a few days later when I was picking him up from school. I played a bit of an audiobook, allowing Ijeoma Oluo to tell her own story of being confronted by a busload of white kids pointing and laughing, pelting her and her brother with the N-word and how that made her feel. I did my best to keep my voice measured and matter-of-fact. I chose my words carefully and made sure he knew he wasn’t in trouble and that his friend wasn’t mad at him.
He held a thoughtful poker face through the conversation, in a way that honestly didn’t tell me a whole lot about his comfort level, at least, not from my vantage point of the rear-view mirror. To his credit, he actively listened, nodding his way through my clunky, oversimplified explanations I gave for the historical indignities that had been reinforced by dehumanizing language. Luckily, it was not the first time we’d talked about our country’s shameful past when it comes to race-relations, so that made it a little easier. We also re-visited the basic pain caused by name-calling.
Ultimately, he didn’t have any questions. Or, he just wanted the conversation to end. I did ask where he might have heard that word (and this time I said it), and he just shook his head and told me he didn’t know. And I didn’t push it.
Then, we went home and played Donkey Kong.
I haven’t the foggiest clue where my son may have heard the N-word. Part of me wants to go rough some people up, kick down some doors and demand to know where the word originated. I picture myself flushing out whatever racist asshole is responsible for spewing hate in front of some poor, unsuspecting 5-year-old and unleash my rage over the harm their open bigotry causes.
But then, I picture some other well-meaning white mother, attempting to get ahead of this exact situation. Maybe she was responding to the mostly unintelligible ramblings of a great-grandparent suffering from a combination of ignorance and dementia, or maybe the word came floating over from a nearby car stereo or overheard from a movie. Maybe her words of caution worked their way into another well-meaning conversation between kindergarteners, confiding in whispers about naughty words.
Either way, it just doesn’t matter where he heard it. The world is broken and my kids are subjected to that world because they just have no choice in the matter. I can’t just put them in a safe, protective bubble of tolerance and declare myself the winner of parenting. They will hear racial slurs; they will witness misogyny; they will learn white-washed versions of history and participate in a society built to protect white supremacy.
This is a world where an ad campaign asking men to be kind is met with outrage.
This is a place that is not always safe or welcoming for those with different sexuality or gender identity.
It’s a society filled with well-intentioned white people--groomed to be nice above all else--insisting that racism ended in the 60s and hailing MLK as the conquering hero; and yet, their blood boils at the site of a black man kneeling, and they openly demonize peaceful protestors asking simply for justice.
Ours is a country where an indigenous man can be taunted and mocked by teenagers and people will go to great lengths to excuse and defend that behavior, unwilling to consider that maybe it’s actually teachable moment for us all.
I am not immune to the impact of this world. I am a person who has been complicit in racism and racist practices. I have surely passed along innumerable micro-aggressions and have caused pain by my actions. I am only just now beginning to figure out how my racial identify and racial injustice in general has affected my life. I am only recently discovering how to be an ally and how to leverage my privilege.
I am a work in progress.
We are all works in progress.
Finding new friends as a grownup is indeed a very real challenge. If you are very, very lucky: you’ll find some friends who be willing to help both you and your children to be better people.