I stepped back into his dimly lit bedroom. He sat on his bed, reading by the lamp on his nightstand.
“Hey, is my phone in here?” I just put him to bed five minutes earlier and suddenly couldn’t locate my phone.
“No. But mommy, what’s the n-word?”
We’ve talked lots about how we love everyone, even when they look different or love different or move different or act different. We’ve talked about how differences make us better, stronger; we’ve talked about how we can learn from those different from ourselves. We’ve talked about those who don’t like certain types of people for any number of non-reasons.
But I hadn’t quite delved into hate speech yet. Because I didn’t have to. Because my sons are white and no one wields the word at them with hatred or malice. It’s our privilege, shining brightly.
— __ — __ —
I remember being in fifth grade, which feels too old to say what I said. The teacher told us to take the letters of our names and make as many words as possible. I actually sat next to the only child of any color in our grade; diverse my hometown was not. When it was my turn to share my list of words, I said it.
And not just the n-word, but the n-word spelled wrong because I didn’t even know how to spell it.
I didn’t know what it meant. I didn’t know that it hurt the kid sitting next to me, though he was brave enough to tell me on the playground. My teacher told me it wasn’t appropriate, but didn’t offer any reason as to why. I obviously heard the word prior to that moment, but at that time, the race discussion went in the “colorblind” direction. So we didn’t discuss anything at home, at school. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
Thinking of that day, even now, makes my stomach hurt.
— __ — __ —
And so that night in my son’s bedroom after bedtime, I continued our discussion on race—a lifelong one if you’re doing it the right way. I explained the ways the word
was is used to hurt black people, people with brown skin. He asked a few questions and generally accepted the discussion in an age-appropriate manner.
And then yesterday happened.
After getting the boys in bed after yesterday’s birthday celebrations, I sat down and made my way through the posts and tweets and shares coming in about the impending announcement in Ferguson. I got a sick feeling in my stomach, that same sick feeling I had when my friend explained what I really said that day in fifth grade. I wanted to believe the indictment would come down, but something deep within me knew. I knew Wilson would walk.
Over dinner this evening, the boys asked about someone no longer in our lives because of the hate she spewed about gay people. The conversation did what conversations do in our family, and meandered down a path. These two boys ask exceptional questions, especially for their age. Eventually, BigBrother brought it back to the n-word he asked me about the other night, and I went with it.
I explained about being black in America, about white privilege, about how they, as white boys with peach skin, will come by certain things in life easier than their black friends with brown skin. I pulled from posts I’ve read over the past few months, over the past few years. And I didn’t really have to do too much explaining, because they wanted to do all the explaining to me.
About how it’s wrong to follow a black boy through a store thinking he would steal something. About how it’s wrong to not like someone, even hate someone, because their skin is different. About how no one is “better” than another human being. About how we all deserve the same rights.
I absolutely shocked them when I told them that black and white people couldn’t marry each other once upon a day. BigBrother chimed in that he knew two of his friends couldn’t go to school with him if this was “back then.” I kept driving it home that while things have changed, while we can marry and go to school together, people still hate. And it’s wrong. And it will be up to them to continue working on change. They don’t understand hate; they don’t want to.
As the conversation wound down, they both said that they would stand up for someone if they saw it happen—which is more than some from my generation can say. Silence on our part spoke volumes over the past day, the past few months, the decades prior. We can make change, but we first must be willing to feel uncomfortable, to start and continue the hard conversations.
When he put his dishes in the sink, BigBrother thanked me for the big, long dinner talk -slash- history lesson. I reminded him that he could always ask and tell me anything. While they set up Mouse Trap, I went and collapsed on the couch for 15 minutes to regain my thoughts.
I don’t have answers for what happened in Ferguson, for what happened in Cleveland, for what happens day in and day out all over our country. But I do have this: I have two little boys who still don’t know how to hate. Hate is learned, and God help me, we won’t be teaching it in our home. I will do my best to continue these conversations with our sons in hopes that someday they won’t one day have to have them with their own… or their grandchildren… or their great-grandchildren.