How do I explain this to him . . .

Posted: February 23, 2011 in General Blogging

Recently my son got an XBox 360 and joined the world playing games on the internet.  It has been interesting to watch and listen to how he reacts to this interaction.  The first couple of weeks we had to have a few discussions, including  “Don’t tell details about who you are, where you live.”  The concept of stranger and the internet was a new thing, even though we have talked quite a bit about the dangers of the internet.  And then we have had a long talk about swearing and have now instituted a penalty for when he swears which is 25 cents per occurrence.  The swearing started as a result of playing on-line.  I have been keeping an ear to his activity so that I can correct any unwanted behaviors.  We have had many discussions that the games had better not cause him to act inappropriately, and if they do, the XBox is gone.

Last night we had a little bit of a different situation.  Usually I have to intervene and request that he quit the game because he has to get ready for bed.  But last night was different.  He had been playing for about 35 minutes when he came into my bedroom, I asked what’s up.  His initial response was, “I just wanted to take a break.”

Here is a little background information that may explain what was happening here.  My son is bi-racial.  I am Caucasian and from the U.S. and my husband is from West Africa.  When we were deciding to have a child we had some discussions about race relations in the U.S., the differences between Africans and African-Americans, and what it would be like to have a bi-racial child.  My husband and I decided that we just needed to portray good role models and things would work out.

So, here’s a topic that is often not talked about.  It is taboo.  The topic is, the use of the word nigger.  It is even difficult for me to even write the word in this post without an uneasy feeling.  But I feel foolish to call it the “N-word,”  because that is just putting a cloak over the word with the intention of lessening the effect, which is ridiculous.  As I am sure all of you know this word is a racial slur and has been used in a derogatory context for quite a few years.  As I was reading about this word, I found that the usage has had an evolving history, with different contexts depending upon the year.   Having diverse variations and spellings, nigger originated from the Latin word niger, which means black.  It was not until the 1800’s that the word transformed into a derogatory term to describe enslaved Africans. Although the word had no negative meaning before, European influence brought upon the idea that dark skin was dirty and devilish; therefore, making the word nigger an insult.  According to the dictionary the word is a pejorative, which means a word or phrase that has negative connotations or that is intended to disparage or belittle. 

I grew up in the sixties.  I had the opportunity of watching the civil rights movement as it evolved.  This derogatory definition of the word is how I know it.  Whether you say the word as nigger, or the N-word, or nigga, it is not right.  This word for me conjures up images of slavery, and deep-seated racial prejudice.  Both myself and my husband abhor the word.  We have never used it, and we don’t associate ourselves with people who do use it.

Today there is a different trend going on.  The word nigger is still derogatory if the person saying the word is not African-American.  On the other hand, African-Americans use the word nigger, often spelled in eye dialect as nigga and niggah  to either neutral the word’s effect or as a sign of solidarity.   The word “nigga” is a“term of endearment,” a shout out,  or a greeting to a fellow brother You will hear the word in today’s music and comedy by black artists.  On the other hand, when African-Americans assume an aggressive posture with one another, and that exchange gets heated, the word “nigga” will be used in an extremely threatening way that challenges the other to react or respond to some threat.  I have also heard that some middle and upper middle class African-American have used this word to distinguish themselves from the black underclass that is suffering from many of the social ills that has plagued the black inner city for the last 30 years.  Acceptance of the word in the black community can also be different, depending on the age group of the people.  Some African-Americans are deeply pained by the use of the word nigger.  And some declare that they have taken ownership of the word and have evolved it into having a positive connotation. 

In past experiences, I have found that words are infinitely easier to manipulate than beliefs.  I also know that outlawing or abolishing the use of the word nigger will never resolve the problem of racism.  Though I have heard that in the UK The Race Relations Act outlawed racist terms.  I am not sure how they even enforce the law. 

Racism still exists today.  There have been many times that I have had a discussion with another caucasian individual and they are surprised to hear me say that racism exists in their city.  I think this follows the rule of, “If I don’t see it, it must not exist.”  In reality it is just plain ignorance, and the lack of interaction that is happening in American communities.  Even more important there is a lack of interaction between communities.  Segregation in cities still exists.  Everyone knows it, but nobody talks about it.  I think there is also shame associated with the topic which may be why it is not talked about.

Now let me get back to my son, which is what started me with this post.  He has already been raised to know that the word is a bad word.  He has studied in school about the civil rights movement.  He knows the work that Martin Luther King did.  He knows that without this work his mom and dad would probably not be together.  Up to now my husband and I have somewhat sheltered him from the race issues in the United States.  He is older now and we are slowly explaining what is going on.  We have lived in predominantly white neighborhoods, even though we are not fully accepted in either white communities or black communities. 

Last summer a six-year-old girl in our neighborhood called my son a “migger,”  as if to disguise the word.  My son was upset and told me what happened.  This little girl and her family were living with their grandmother.  I told my son to stay in the house and I would deal with this.  I was so angry.  I know kids can tease each other and sometimes have a “gang” mentality, but, this issue was one that I could not dismiss or ignore, at least not in my own neighborhood.  I knocked on the grandmother’s door and told her what happened.  I told her that I am not trying to cause trouble but I can not let this issue go.  She said she totally understand and immediately grounded the little girl.   The little girl, with some prompting from her grandmother, came to me and apologized.  I told her that it was not me that she needed to apologize to.  It was my son who she needed to apologize to.  She walked back to my house with me and apologized.

As I said earlier, my son has started playing video games on-line with others.  We understand the risk of allowing him to do this, and we continuously monitor the situation.  So, the evening my son quit playing the video game early, it turns out that he was playing a game with a couple of other individuals.  Based on their discussion my son knew that two of the guys were African-Americans.  That evening these individuals (I assume in an action of comradeship) called my son a nigga.  I think my son was a little caught off guard.  He knew that some white people use the word and it is not a good word.  But he did not expect another black individual to call him that word.

I know some people may be angry that I am even discussing this topic.  I am being sincere when I ask, how do I explain to my son that not everyone uses the word in the same way.  Sometimes it can be bad, and sometimes it can be accepted.  As I write this, I can’t even say that it is “accepted.”  The whole concept is distasteful.  I can not tell my son that sometimes it is okay to use the word nigger.  I can’t.  And I won’t.  I still have not figured out how to have this discussion with my son.  For the time being, I told him that if it happens again, he should just depart from the game. 

I know this issue will arise again.  My son has recently changed schools which has a larger black population.  Within three months of the start of school, the African-Americans have found each other at lunch and now always hang out together.  As a result of this my son is getting an opportunity to interact with other kids that are black.  In some ways it is nice, because he is not alone, which has been occasionally an issue before.  I can see, based on my son’s description, it is a group of unity and a presence  of safety.  I am not sure if this is good or bad.  So far it appears to be positive.  We will see where this goes.

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