By Breanna Lathrop
Our oldest son is 7 and attends a large public school we love. Part of sending your kid to school is acknowledging that you lose more control over what they learn and when. Our son learned the F-word a few months into Kindergarten. He went from not knowing such a word existed to saying it competently. We calmly explained to him that it is not a word he is allowed to use.
Toward the end of the school year, there was an incident in the 5th grade where a white child used the N-word at a black child during an argument over a soccer game. I heard about the event through my husband who teaches at the school. As I thought about the incident and its far-reaching impact on the school community, I realized that at that moment, I still had control over when and how my son would learn that word.
A few months went by and a second incident occurred in which the N-word was used at summer camp. My son wasn’t around at the time. I realized it was evidence of my son’s privilege that he didn’t know the word. As a white boy with white parents, no one has ever used that word toward him. He has never heard someone shout it at his father or murmur it under his/her breath at his mother. As his mom, I hadn’t talked about the N-word with my son because he has never been the victim of racism.
As he started second grade, my husband and I decided it was time to talk to him about the N-word. Our best friend and our son’s godfather, also an educator, is black and has consistently been a support in our parenting decisions. I’ll pause a moment to emphasize that it is not the job of black people to fix white people’s racism. Given our relationship with our son’s godfather and his consistent presence in our son’s life, we asked him if he had any thoughts on our plan to tell our son about the N-word. He asked if he could join us for the conversation, so a few nights later, once the younger two were asleep, I brought our oldest downstairs.
We told him that the N-word is different from other bad words. This word attacks a person. This word is meant to make someone feel less-than, because of the color of their skin. His godfather added a few thoughts from his personal experience about how he would feel if someone used that word towards him. Our son listened intently and we ended by giving him some ideas on what to do if he hears the word being used. The conversation was short, awkward, and heavy, but important.
We climbed in bed and I prepared to sing to him as I do every night. He lay with his eyes wide open, lost in thought.
“Mom,” he starts.
“I wish I didn’t know that word. I wish a word like that didn’t exist.”
My protective mom heart wanted to tell him not to worry about it and get some sleep. I wanted to tell him it will be OK, but the truth is that it is not OK. Racism bleeds into every part of our society from his recess playground, to housing policies, to maternal mortality rates, to violent crime statistics. It’s OK for him to hurt sometimes and its OK for him to worry. We all need to. Since I couldn’t be reassuring I went with the truth:
“I know, Kiddo, I feel that way too, but it does exist.”