Growing up in Alaska, I never really knew the depths of racism in our country and how alive it is today, until I went to college in the midwest. There I saw and heard things that caught my eye and clenched my heart. Of course, these sparse comments and doings were mixed with daily living and were not as on-the-surface as they are in other parts of the country.
After moving back to Alaska, I found myself surrounded by a community that had become even more diverse than it was when I’d left several years prior. At times, I find the same sayings I had heard in Illinois being spoken – in hushed voices – here, too. But, it seems, the rumblings and rantings of racists are being quieted more and more in mainstream society.
That’s why, it’s an amazing thing to be able to write what I am about to write.
My daughter is in fifth grade. Her class has been reading Tom Sawyer. She was assigned to read a few chapters every night. Trying to improve her reading skills, I’ve been having her read aloud. It helps her two younger brothers, as well. They listen along to story time. Usually, this is a good thing. That is, until my dear child blurts out the ‘N’ word. It stopped me dead in my tracks. The way that hateful word rolled off her tongue, like she was saying, “ball” or “tree,” caught me so off guard I wasn’t sure I’d heard her right.
“WHAT did you just say?” I asked my daughter.
She repeated the sentence, word for word. After she’d said the word I was dreading hearing, I asked her if she knew what that word meant.
“Which word?” she asked.
I pointed to it. She repeated the word again.
“No,” she said, “what does (insert word I don’t even like typing) mean?”
I proceeded to explain the word and how it’s a word meant to degrade people. We talked about the word for a while and I thought everything was understood. It’s not a word I say, not a word I am comfortable hearing, or even reading for that matter. So, when it was my turn to read the book aloud with her, I’d skip it. Maybe that’s sanitizing Mark Twain and that era too much. But, I just can’t even stand to speak it.
What amazes me is that my daughter doesn’t even hesitate when she sees it. She reads it like any other word. She’d never even heard the word until she read it in a book. It makes me wonder if the word is losing its power, at least in the younger generations. Has that word lost its sting among our youth?
For those that know me, you can probably assume I’ve never felt the sting of that word. I have the pastiest white flesh you’ve ever laid eyes on. I’ve never felt the pain a word like that can bring. I’ve only seen the damage it can do when hurled at someone who can.
Just as I was thinking about how far we’ve come as a society, that sly little devil – racism – reared its ugly head again. I was at a get together on Halloween and a man told what I’m sure he considered to be a joke. To say the least, it wasn’t funny. He has children the same age as mine. I wonder what lessons he’s teaching in his home.
Do your children know that word? Do they know what it means? How would you or have you explained the word to your kids?