Thursday, January 10, 2008

I think it's time to have "the talk" with my son

No, not about the birds and the bees and the reproductive organs. The other talk.

Ben is in second grade, and he has heard people say "the N-word" but didn't know the full expansion of the term. I told him I didn't want to plant that word in his head because it's so vile, but wouldn't you know it? He asked a classmate, and that kid knew what the word was. (Because the latest Rush Hour sequel had included someone saying something like "the N-word, the M-word, and the F-word," and the kid's mom answered him when he asked what that meant.)

So now Ben knows the word, but in order to really grasp that it's not just a word you wield when the expanded F-word doesn't feel strong enough, he probably needs to learn about the hateful history of the word and about the heritage of racism in this society.

I don't know where to begin and what to say, though. Advice, anyone? Key points to touch on? Useful analogies or facts?

10 comments:

Vandelay said...

Just tell him to use "porch monkey". It's infinitely more innocuous to second graders and they might even think he's funny.

Seriously, I wouldn't worry about teaching him about the history of racism just yet. I think second grade is a little young to be teaching a kid that there's that kind of extreme hate in this world. Let them have their idealistic view of the world before they have to discover it on their own.

I would just say, "Ben...that's one of the worst words you could ever say and if I ever hear it come out of your mouth or someone tells me that it came out of your mouth, you will be punished severely."

Jay said...

Vandelay has a point. Kids the age of ours are still really concrete and racism is a pretty abstract notion. The outward manifestations of racism are clear enough for them to understand, though. My daughter knows about segregation - they read about the bus boycott and Rosa Parks around this time last year, for MLK Day - and I'd probably tell her that the n-word was a word people used to make other people feel bad and to keep them separate, like they used to segregate them.

I don't know if I'd tell my daughter that racists sometimes use that word to describe people like her, or her biological father. That one looms for me like telling her about the Holocaust: I really don't want to be the one to tell her that such evil exists in the world and could be directed at her, but I don't want her to hear about it in a half-assed way, either.

It's so much easier to have the other talk. Sex I can talk about. Racism, genocide, why there are Republicans - those things I can't explain.

Maman said...

I went with just the basics, "We don't use those words because they can hurt peoples' feelings". The trick is when Ben figures out that other people do use them and why they think it is ok.... sigh. This is one of the sad parts of being a mom.

Sergei C. said...

Hopefully it will go better for your son than it did for me:
http://lowlandseed.blogspot.com/2007/02/word-of-day-color.html

Sergei C. said...

Ok, Blogger cut off that URL. How about this link to my tale of educational woe instead.

bitchphd said...

I disagree with Vandalay pretty strongly. This hasn't come up with PK yet, surprisingly, though he does know about racism more generally, but here is what I'd probably say. It's pretty much cribbed from what my parents said to me when they heard me and my sister using that word.

You must never, ever use that word. It's a word that people used to use against people with dark skins (if Ben already knows "black" and "white" as descriptors of people, then go ahead and use that). In this country, European settlers forced people they kidnapped from Africa to work as slaves. They wouldn't let them use their own languages, they would sell children away from their mamas, they would make them do very hard, very dangerous work for no money, they wouldn't give them enough food to eat, and they would beat people if they refused to work. Eventually that became illegal, thank god, but for many years people whose ancestors were from Europe continued to think that they were better than people whose ancestors were from Africa, and they continued to treat those people very, very badly. There were laws defining people whose ancestors were from Europe as "white," and people whose ancestors were from Africa as "black," and those laws said things like white people always went first, white people had the best schools, white people could boss black people around whenever they felt like it. And black people couldn't do anything about it or they might get beaten up or even killed by white people, and if that happened, usually the law wouldn't prosecute those people. And white people would use that word for black people as an insult, to show how much better they were, and how much more power they had, and to treat black people worse than animals. And I never, ever want to hear you use that word, because that's what it means.

If he asks why some people *do* use it, you can talk about "reclaiming" words, if you like, or you can use that to point out that racism is far from over and that a lot of people still believe some of those things.

bitchphd said...

(All that said, PK did have a moment of white guilt, not from what I've told him about racism, but from the way it was taught at his darn school last year. If that kind of thing comes up, then you explain that there were many people of European descent who thought that kind of thing was very wrong, and who fought to end it. Though obviously you'll have to amend to take into account the fact that Ben's mixed ethnicity.)

Jeff said...

How about a few movies with the remote ready to pause and explain things? I think I was about that age when "Roots" was on TV. Rent an episode a week if it's available. If you think that's too heavy, he might now be able to at least handle "To Kill A Mockingbird". In the coming years, show him "Mississippi Burning", "Ghosts Of Mississippi" (although the HBO documentary on Medgar Evers was much better), or "American History X" when he's closer to high school.

Buffy said...

I just still can't believe people use this word. I grew up around it, and the way I still see it thrown about (especially so casually!) just blows my mind. I don't have children of my own, but if I did it would take all my restraint not to say 'people who use that word are ignorant, and awful'. I hate it. It makes no sense to me.

Sorry for the rant...

Psycho Kitty said...

I also disagree strongly that Ben's too young to get this stuff. I can't imagine that, having you for a mom, he doesn't know right from wrong, or that he thinks hurting others is ok. And that's really what it boils down to.
That's what it *always* boils down to. I've talked with the Boy--hell, with the Girl, and she's 5-- about rascism, sexism, eating disorders, child abuse; if you put things in age appropriate terms and don't try to scare them, they get the idea, in a nutshell, that "There are certain words that people use to hurt others, and they are never okay to use." Also, if you feel he needs to understand why there are a word aimed at a particular racial or ethnic group is particularly hurtful: "Some people think that anyone who looks or thinks differently is bad or stupid or less of a worthwhile person just because of that difference. Sometimes they try to make those other people serve them or give them all their money or property; they try to hurt and rule over anyone who isn't exactly like them. That was the case in this country once, and people with white skin thought they could actually own people with dark skin, or that people who didn't have white skin weren't the same as people who did. That's wrong. Every single person, no matter what they look like, where they're from, their age or their gender, deserves to be treated with kindness and respect."