Okay, so here’s the thing. I’m a black woman, and I never say the n-word. I won’t even type it for the sake of talking about this. I’m not one of those people who is comfortable reclaiming it.
When I sing along to “Gold Digger,” I sound like the radio edit. Growing up, it was never a word my parents used. So I just never heard it spoken casually. Obviously, I will watch things where it’s said, and I listen to rap music. But I have never, and will never, feel comfortable saying anything other than “the n-word.”
In my house, it’s just me, my son, and one TV. That means that if one of us wants to watch something, both of us end up watching it. A lot of the time. I watch anything “adult” when he’s asleep at night. Mainly because he’s at an age where he asks a million questions. And he likes to repeat things he finds funny. So, for the sake of my sanity and reputation as a half-decent mother, I try to keep things with sex and swearing to a minimum.
Somehow, though, my son ended up watching Trevor Noah’s Netflix special, Son of Patricia. It wasn’t until recently that he brought it up again. After seeing a billboard with Noah’s face, he said, “Mommy, it’s the taco guy!” (There’s a whole bit about the first time Trevor has tacos. It’s hilarious.) He then asked if we could watch that again when we got home. I was tired, and it would keep him quiet, so I agreed.
Overall, the themes of Son of Patricia are very mild. He talks about his life, but there’s nothing particularly salacious or inflammatory. Like Trevor Noah, my son has a white dad and a black mom. So I figure it’s nice for my little guy to see someone who at least has that in common with him, even if he’s like 30 years older and from a foreign country. After watching the show together, my son became obsessed. I can’t tell you how many times he asks to watch it since then, I’m losing count.
While the overall theme of the special is mild, Noah really does use the n-word quite a bit. It’s never just to get the shock though. Usually he’s using it to make a point about the way we handle racism. But he still says it enough that it can just become a fun word to repeat. As my son babbled away the last joke of the special, I heard him say, “nigga, please,” which is the ending line. Something in my body tensed up. I called him over.
“Hey bud, we don’t say that word, okay?”
“Is it a bad word?” he asked.
I paused. I hate the idea that words are good or bad. Words are words, and they way we use them is good or bad, not the words themselves. But I had to give him an answer. He’s five, so his understanding of language is still developing. I knew however I was approaching this, I was going to have to do it with great care. Honestly, I never thought I would have to have a talk about the n-word with my kindergartner, but this was my bed to lay in.
“No, it’s not a bad word. But, it is a mean word, and it’s definitely not one kids should repeat,” I told him, all the air whooshing out of me.
“Why?” he looked at me, his brow furrowing in confusion.
How was I going to try and explain this to a five-year-old who has no concept of what racism is? In his short life, he’s thankfully never had to deal with people discriminating against him because of his skin color. Truth be told, I’ve never been called the n-word to my face. Again, I know that I’m extremely lucky, and I know it can still happen. Abstract concepts aren’t really easy for a lot of little kids, but my kiddo needs something tangible to fully grasp a concept.
“Well, sometimes people who are peach like you don’t like people who are brown like me,” I said, cradling him in my lap. He has fair skin like his dad, and people often don’t believe that he’s half black.
“Because they’ve been taught to not like people with brown skin just because they have brown skin. So, they say that word as a way to hurt the other person’s feelings,” I look into his eyes to see any glimmer of understanding.
“And it makes them sad,” he says and I feel relief.
“Exactly, and that’s why I never ever want to hear you use that word, okay? Even though Trevor wasn’t saying it to be mean, we don’t say it in this house.”
Like I said, people don’t always believe my son is black, especially if he’s not with me. Trying to teach my son about moving through the world as a mixed kid is a learning experience. As he gets older, he may be afforded privileges that black boys don’t have. So I have to teach him how to understand racism from my perspective. But he has to learn how to apply it to his. I realize this is the first of many modified talks we’ll have about race.
No matter how I approach it, I’m super lucky. We’re able to talk about using the n-word in a very natural way. I realize we could have been having this conversation because someone used it in a harmful way towards him. Thankfully, his first experiences with the word have been in a positive light, or as positive as they could be. He views the word as a punchline to a joke, not as a weapon. But I know that one day, he can hear it as a weapon. And I want him to be ready for that.
Racism isn’t easy to talk about with kids. Especially kids who won’t ever experience it. This was the first time I’ve understood the gravity of being a black mother in America. My peers in motherhood don’t always get the luxury of using TV as a lesson. They’re handling it on park benches, in school offices, walking down the street. I never for one second take my privilege for granted. But I also know that non-black parents have to be having these tough conversations with their kids too. Because racism is everywhere. And when you teach your kids to be better, they make the world a little better for kids like ours.