How White Parents Can Talk To White Kids About The N-Word

It's probably a topic you'd rather not touch. That doesn't mean you shouldn't.

Originally Published: 
A collage of white mother talking to her white kid about the N-Word with the "we shall overcome" tex...

Growing up white in a mostly white neighborhood, attending mostly white schools, it's a sign of my white privilege that I don't even remember hearing the n-word for the first time. I do recall an English class devoted to discussing Mark Twain's use of the word in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but that was my primary context for the most controversial word in all of the English language — a book written by a white man.

Another symptom of white privilege? Knowing my white kids would never hear the word lobbed at them as an insult, it didn't occur to me when they were small that I should take a moment to consider how to talk to them about it. This felt like a conversation at a safe distance, something that would come during some teenage year, in the context of a documentary film or a visit to a civil rights monument.

I was not expecting my 5-year-old daughter, skipping down the street and proudly holding my hand, to look up at me and ask, "Mommy, what's the n-word?"

After establishing that no, the n-word was not nuts, I bumbled my way through an explanation that relied heavily on the words racism and violence, which was apparently effective enough to keep her from saying it. She's eight now, but looking back, I still feel that I probably could've done better.

I want to acknowledge that I, a white lady, am not any kind of an expert on the n-word. But I am responsible for my own kids. I believe we have a social and moral obligation to send our children out into the world knowing the basics about racism and their white privilege, and we need to talk about the n-word.

Five might sound early for talking about a word that has been part of so much suffering and death over our nation's history. But if Ruby Bridges was old enough at the age of six to endure hearing the word slung at her when she desegregated William Frantz Elementary School in 1960, our young kids can handle learning what it means. Their Black peers, after all, don't have a choice in the matter.

You may be nervous about saying the wrong thing, and you may say the wrong thing, but compare your feelings about that to the way you would feel if your child used this word in public. Then compare that to what a Black child hearing the word might feel.

Scholar Ibram X. Kendi, author of the best-selling How to Be an Antiracist and the newly released How to Raise an Antiracist — and a father — told the Washington Post, "I think the sources of the worry and insecurity is this belief that if we somehow get it wrong, meaning if we say the wrong thing, in the wrong way, in response to our child engaging us about race, that we'll somehow make them racist — so the best solution is to just not say anything or to shut down the conversation. When in reality, it's the other way around. If we don't say anything, then they're going to get an answer from somewhere else, and chances are that answer is more likely to be a racist one."

I spoke with a couple of expert educators about how white parents like me can navigate this conversation with our white children. They agreed that broaching the topic is both the biggest hurdle and the essential first step. Here are their suggestions.

Take advantage of teachable moments.

Tayo Enna, a kindergarten teacher who facilitates an anti-racist workshop for parents and identifies as Black and biracial, recalls a conversation he had with a former student who was heard using the word at school: "For that student, he was just using the word freely. Like, that doesn't impact anybody. It's in music. It's in movies; it's in books and literature. But to see that it affected me, and explaining why that affects me." Enna felt like he was able to achieve an "aha moment" where this child understood that "there's one group that sort of has the right to use it, and he wasn't in that group."

Of course, it isn't the job of your Black friends to explain to your kids why the n-word is hurtful, but you can follow Enna's example of not letting a teachable moment pass you by. If someone uses the word in your presence, it's an opening for you to have a conversation with your child.

Call upon empathy.

While Enna doesn't introduce the n-word to his kindergartners, he does lay the groundwork for later discussions. "Empathy," he says, "is at the core."

His students, Enna says, are capable of "understanding of how others might feel if something is said, or just having an ability to understand them, so you can see the connections and the relationship that you can have with a group of people that may look different from you, or have some different customs."

When you do have the opportunity to talk about the n-word with a younger child, they may best be able to understand its impact in comparison with other insults and hurtful words. Thinking about how they might feel if someone used another hateful word towards them, kids can grasp the importance of not using this one.

Emphasize the long, violent history of the word.

"Our kids are smart," says Khalid White, a professor of history and African American studies at San Jose City College. "But how do we unpack the history and the genocide and depth of the word to a six-year-old?" In addition to telling them not to use the word, he says, "We have to explain why, we have to give some context, we have to go deeper than that surface level."

Kids who have learned some history should have a sense of the word's connection to slavery, and to incidents up through present-day police violence in which Black people are treated as less than human. White explains that parents can point out that "this word has always been associated with death, genocide, keeping a group of people down, oppression, that type of thing," and ask their kids, "Do you want to be associated with that?"

Of course, this assumes that your child already has some understanding of race and racism. Luckily, there are lots of resources available these days to help you start these discussions with your children, from books to videos produced by Sesame Street.

"It's an uphill battle, for sure," says White. "The nation that we live in teaches racism." It takes conscious effort to push back and teach anti-racism.

Explain that relationships matter, as does context.

A child may genuinely wonder why, if the word is so terrible, they hear Black people using it sometimes. There's no perfect metaphor for this situation — there is no other n-word — but Enna suggests reminding kids that there are situations where it's only appropriate for people with certain relationships to use certain titles. Your kids don't call other people's parents mom or dad, for example.

You can introduce the word reappropriation, but even without that vocabulary, kids can understand the idea of taking back a word to redistribute its power. You could use the example of words like dork and geek, which you might use to talk about yourself with something like pride, but would feel hurt to hear coming from someone else.

Kids also understand the idea of keeping things "in the family." You might tease your sister all the time, but you'd get angry if you heard someone else talking about her that way. Explain to your kids that groups of people are kind of like families, and while some Black people feel okay using that word within that group, it doesn't mean that the word is available to everyone else.

You can add that not all Black people agree on whether the word should ever be used, but that's not a conversation for us to have. It's not our "house," so to speak, and the rules aren't ours to make.

Don't present the word as some relic from our racist past.

While we want kids to know some history to go with the word, it's important that they "don't just look at it as a word from the past," says Enna. Kids and adults, he explains, "associate certain things as something that historically happened a long time ago, like segregation or integration . . . they think 'Oh, well, that was back then.'"

Kids who want to use the word to fit in among their peers may argue that its meaning has changed or that the variation that ends in -a, rather than -er, is different somehow. Explain that everyone still recognizes it as the n-word. The word's violence goes back centuries, and it still carries hateful connotations.

Come up with specific workarounds.

White, who refers to the word as "the world's most popular racial slur," tackles the issue head-on when it arises in the historical documents and other texts he uses in his courses. When reading aloud, White and his students replace the word with slave or another contextually appropriate term. Even coming from the page, and perhaps hundreds of years ago, "the sting is there," White says.

Understanding that the word can cause hurt, regardless of context, can help older kids see why they shouldn't say it even when they're singing along to a song. You can suggest that kids just stay silent for those two syllables, the way they have probably heard other bad words bleeped out on TV.

Clarify that there are no exceptions.

If your child hears friends using the word, they'll probably feel pressure to join in. But you can press back. Enna suggests asking, "Why is it this need to use a word that can impact others in such a significant way?" Then tie it back to the idea of empathy.

Another scenario that Enna has seen is a child who is not Black being given a "pass" to use the word by a Black friend. But no one person can represent an entire race. Enna points out that if you have to ask permission to use a word, that's really proof enough that you shouldn't be using it.

When it comes to music, encourage kids to focus on all the other words in the song instead of the one word they aren't allowed to sing along to. "There's so much other content," says Enna, much of it related to social justice. "Have conversations with your friends about what is my favorite rapper actually saying within this four-minute song, rather than the 18 uses of the n-word."

"These are conversations that need to be had," says White. "America has a history of racism, misogyny, violence, all the things that we hope our kids do not pick up. There's a history of all those things, past and present, unfortunately. So we have to equip our children."

Kids also pick up quickly on which topics are taboo and learn not to bring them up — but that doesn't mean they aren't wondering about them. Sometimes they just need an opening.

Enna, who is also a father, acknowledges that telling kids not to do something can sometimes backfire. "But we've got to take that risk, right?" To say nothing is to uphold a racist status quo. Enna says, "I have to lean into this and have a conversation."

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