When My Children Learned The "N" Word

When you homeschool, you sometimes tread into “big” and “serious” topics a little earlier than you would like because your children have more opportunities to ask questions. Because of this, my children are asking lots of questions that force us to have long conversations about racism in America. It’s not exactly easy…or fun.

It might have started months ago when I was reading To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee and my daughter heard some discussions I was having with her daddy about the book. Lucy, my incredible nine year-old, is always watching me. She is always listening to me. And she’s always very interested in what I am watching, reading, and creating. When I was reading To Kill A Mockingbird, she wanted to read it too. I told her no, that it was too “big” for her just now. But she kept asking.

Last weekend, I went out with my grandma, my mom and my aunts to the Indianapolis Repertory Theater and saw a production of To Kill A Mockingbird. Lucy desperately wanted to go and was crushed when I told her it was still too “big” for her and that she should read the book first, even although I wouldn’t allow her to read the book just yet. So what did she do? She sweet talked my mom into letting her borrow a copy of To Kill A Mockingbird and started reading. There’s simply no stopping that girl when she is determined.

Lucy was maybe two pages into the book when alarm shot through me. I looked at her dad and said that we needed to quickly speak to Lucy a bit more on racism, in particular, the word “nigger”. So we called Lucy in. She marched into the living room with her nose in the book and we asked her to sit down. It was an uncomfortable conversation. We explained to her the history of the “bad word in which we should NEVER use” and told her we were explaining this to her now because the word appears in the book within the first chapter. When we finally said the word out loud, she giggled…uncomfortably.

That’s how silly and ridiculous the word is. Children laugh at it. It sounds silly…dumb….and the very idea that people gave black humans this moniker sounds ridiculous to them.

We then explained to Lucy that black people use this word today when speaking to each other. Maybe it’s not nice, but it’s their right to take that ugly word and make it their own. Even although they can use the word, we never should, because it was white people that meant the word to lower black humans to a place much below ourselves.

And now today.

Today I had to have another long conversation with my son. He read a book for school about Ruby Bridges and has seen how heroic her actions were. He keeps telling me he wants to go to a school where only black students go and be the only white person to attend. Sadly, that’s not very hard to do if we lived closer to the city.

Teddy started asking all kinds of questions, thinking that racism in America was ended when a little girl was escorted into an all white public school. I had to explain to him that it has only been quiet in America, waiting for it’s moment to return. And it has.

Teddy sat quietly as I explained to him about poverty and education and how statistics show that black Americans still have so much more obstacles to overcome to have the same opportunities we do. We talked about how, today, the public school Ruby Bridges attended in an attempt to end segregation is now mostly black students because the white children attend private schools. Segregation is happening once more because of economic injustice. Of course, I had to explain this in different ways he could understand. We spoke about how there is a movement growing in our nation to “take back America” and what that meant: immigration reform and deportation and prejudice against Muslims and African Americans and Hispanics. He has seen snatches of news and violence inflicted on others that are simply different than the average white Christian. Maybe that makes me a bad parent? Maybe that makes me irresponsible? But I know my children. I can see their hunger to learn and grow and change the ugliness around them. They are deep wells of love and compassion and warriors…

I held my son when tears gathered in his eyes. “Teddy, when you were still in my belly, I knew that God whispered to my heart…that you were going to be a very important man. You can change things.” I pressed a kiss to the top of his red head and squeezed him close.

I pressed upon my son the importance of education: This is the powerful tool that would bring change, not fist and guns and swords (he likes weapons and heroes and battles). I told him that anyone scared enough could use a weapon, but educated people could evoke something more powerful with beautiful words.

I don’t know what is going to happen. I don’t know what my children will do. But they will be given every opportunity to serve and love and change things through education, through the arts, through music and theater. These are the things that reach the hard heart and stir the stagnant waters of compassion.

They will bring powerful change.

They will love big.

They will create a new world.

They will help salvage the mess history has handed them.

I will stamp out fear by raising educated children.

I will let them have glimpses of our reality so they can create something more life-sustaining.

Please, friends, allow our children to be the ones that end racism in our world.

Give them the ability to think and feel deeply.


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