I was reading a bedtime story to my 8 year old son Dillon and his 8 year old cousin Noah last night. It was a benign story, geared to a younger audience, but the boys had asked me to read it as a simple ploy to stay up later.
We got to the page where Momma Cat told Tom Kitten to put on his blue suit, only to discover it was too small. As we looked at the drawing of an orange tabby bursting out of his blue knickers and top, Dillon says in a successful attempt to make his cousin laugh, “He looks like a nigger!”
“Whoa. Guys… where did that come from?” When he saw my reaction he said “I didn’t know–it’s just us.”
Back in December I posted about explaining the power, racism and history of the word ‘nigger’, when Dillon first learned it. “Well, we’ve had that discussion, I’m glad we’re done with that,” I had thought.
Where had it come from tonight? I thought of some of the conversations in the car on the way home from dinner:
- Reading Tom Sawyer-Tom Sawyer Huckleberry Finn-Huckleberry Finn-Nigger;
- Comparing summer camps-both camps had bullies-Noah had been called a “honkey” and “cracker”, discussed possible responses and adult/counselor responsibility;
- Getting ready to go back to school-talking about diversity in their classrooms (Noah’s school is more diverse, “most of my friends are black,” Dillon’s school primarily Caucasian, with Hispanic the second largest group);
But back to the “it’s just us” idea–there’s a subtle distinction that we hadn’t discussed last time.
In diversity training and inclusion, often it is about what to say when someone else is listening. In ‘real life,’ it’s racist not ONLY if you say it in earshot of someone who is African American–use of the word itself is racist, regardless of who is listening. It’s something you carry in your heart.
Anyone else with sweaty palms? What was your (gift of a) most uncomfortable conversation about race with your child (or co-worker, friend, etc.)? What are you saying when no one is looking?