Dealing with the N word
I am reasonably conversant with the history of American slavery. As conversant as someone who is not a student of history, from another country, can be. I know about people such as Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. I’ve seen the images of black people being burnt alive or strung up. I see the stupid, stupid bumper stickers “2012 Don’t re-nig”. I understand the horror many feel at the use of the word nigger. I won’t allow the use of the word in our house.
Yet how do I get the message across to young people who have never learnt the history, who have no idea what happened in those dark days, no idea what Martin Luther King fought for? No idea that black people weren’t allowed to sit on a bus under certain circumstances? These kids just hear music and think the word is cool because it is being used by black artists. They think the American entertainers are cool. I can’t ban the music, it is everywhere. Even the Australian kids who use the word are using it in what they think is a “cool” way because they have no idea of the history either.
In Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, the word is defined as “member of any dark skinned race. Taken to be offensive.” Dictionary.com says the word “is now probably the most offensive word in English. Its degree of offensiveness has increased markedly in recent years, although it has been used in a derogatory manner since at least the Revolutionary War. Definitions 1a, 1b, and 2 represent meanings that are deeply disparaging and are used when the speaker deliberately wishes to cause great offense.”
My Chambers Dictionary agrees. I remember being on a train in Melbourne and hearing two black teenagers using the word a couple of years ago. I wanted to tell them not to, but figured I might not get a great reaction. I worried about the fact I was white and they were black. With my own kids, I’m not white or black, I’m Mum.
The word even sounds bad. Say it to yourself. It is harsh, almost guttural. There is nothing about the sound of the word that implies a compliment.
I almost understand the younger generations in the USA attempting to ”re-badge” the word to wear it as a badge of pride. Take something that was bad and make it good. A “We’ll show you” approach, if you like. I’m sorry, it doesn’t work. I don’t think the word can ever be “good”.
One thing that astounded me was a sentence from the bumper-sticker woman: “I’ve helped black families…to guide them in the right direction.” REALLY? Ms Smith, I’m not so sure YOUR direction is so correct, to be perfectly honest with you. She is also unaware that the word means black people – according to her, it means “a low down, lazy, sorry, low down person. That’s what the N word means.” Could have fooled me. Of course, not being American, I have not idea what a “low down” person is either, although I can hazard a guess!
In our home we had a discussion about the word the other night when it came up in conversation over dinner. Then I noticed the bumper sticker media coverage. This article has been stewing in my mind ever since. I’m still not sure what exactly I am writing, but this is part of life in a new land, part of exposure to different cultures. Adapting, working out what is acceptable and what is not.
These days “gangsta” and the N word seem almost synonymous in the popular media. In the first few months of exposure, the boys suddenly seemed to swap thinking becoming a doctor and an engineer was cool, to thinking “gangsta” was cool. Not exactly what we, as parents, had in mind at all. Hopefully the novelty will wear off and their own culture will again rise to the fore. We are staying on top of any signs of acceptance of this negativity.
I have my own thoughts about the whole process (or lack thereof) of the emancipation in the USA. I won’t go into detail here for two reasons:
I am an outsider, looking in (neither black nor American),
I am not an anthropologist or a psychologist.
I will however make a couple of observations. One of my closest friends is an African-American and she visited me in Australia. I took her to an African restaurant. She was really very hesitant to go – she had never met an actual African.
I also know from the personal account of an African living in the USA that person does not have one African-American friend. This is not the first time I have heard similar accounts. I find this very sad.
Friends from Ghana tell me they are always shocked when they watch TV programs about Africa, as if everyone lives swinging from trees (I am quoting). When my family came home, people asked me had they ever lived in a house before.
Of course, none of my thinking answers my original question: how to handle the N word with my children. I know what I will do. I’ll wing it. Parents spend a lot of their life winging it in one way or another. I just don’t want my kids thinking this word is cool in any way and I want to make sure they have at least an appreciation of the history behind it and respect for the people involved. The people who were burnt alive, who were whipped, raped, shot and bought and sold like cattle. I would strive to achieve this with any child, but I don’t want our kids being under the mistaken belief this is an innocent word. It is a word that carries very heavy history with it. No, it is not their personal history, but it is the history of many from their part of the world.
It is not cool and it is not funny. Kids, I know you will read this. When you are ready, I will give you appropriate documentaries to watch. In the meantime, remember THAT word is banned in THIS house.
As for the bumper sticker, I will pass you over to Dr Paul Lehman, who has written much more effectively on that particular topic than I ever could in his article Anti-Obama bumper sticker underscores fear and bigotry.
MLK said I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” Let us hope one day the world will rise up too.