This is my latest essay on Washington Post’s “On Parenting” column. As I mentioned on Facebook, I wrote it in March. Who knew we the vile word would be back in the headlines three months later? It makes me prepare for it — and for my young son hearing it — even more. But I remain determined to defeat it.
A mom braces herself for when her child hears the N-word
By Nicole Blades
We were on the playground at recess, and I had just become King of the Mountain by pushing René off the snowy hill. He didn’t see me coming and ended up taking the most inelegant tumble-slide down the mound. Frustrated, he threw it at me. Nigger. Without thinking I quickly hurled something back: a snowball packed with ice. I must have been about 9 years old, and it was the first time anyone ever called me that to my face. I remember feeling angry, humiliated, but ultimately wounded.
For so many people, that word — despite tired attempts to reclaim the power rooted beneath it –will always be loaded with loathing and a brutal history, making it hard to truly shrug off. I may be able to let go of the incident in which it shows up, but the word doesn’t quite leave right away. It has a way of lingering behind like a noxious belch.
The thought of my young son having to face that stench on his own has me already gripped by a preset angst. He’s only 6, and his grasp of layered concepts such as race and ethnicity is limited. But my husband and I don’t subscribe to the simplistic idea of colorblindness, so the conversation about racism, discrimination, and ignorance will definitely happen at a more appropriate age.
Still, I can almost see the hurt and humiliation in his sweet eyes as he recounts what some awful kid said to him on the playground or in the classroom or cafeteria, trying to break him, shoving him into his perceived place, stripping away his right to just be. And I can feel it, as I listen to this imagined retelling, the heat in the pit of my gut surging, scorching up my throat and positioning itself hot and stinging on the edge of my lips, ready to roar and advocate for ice-ball solutions.
Of course I know that violence will never be the salve for ignorance, and intolerance can’t be wrestled into a sealed box by brute force. I also know that parenting through nasty racist encounters, when angst and anger roiling in your belly leave you thinking eye-for-an-eye instead of edification, takes real work. Work that, to be honest, I’m not convinced I can actually pull off with a cool, collected head.
But then I think about my role here: I’m a mother of color committed to raising a compassionate, confident child of color with a sturdy sense of self, who will be unruffled by his “designated” status as a perceived interloper. I think about the real work of other mothers just like me, determined to buck against the warped social construct that grants privilege and sympathy, as birthright, to one specific group of people, and persecution and skepticism to all the others. I think about my vow to protect this child and prepare him to protect himself, to teach him how to brace for the impact of hateful, hurtful words without retaliating with sticks or stones. And it’s immediately confirmed: it’s not a matter of whether I can pull it off. I just have to. It’s a must.
One way to begin is by infusing his still-forming identity with countervailing messages about his self-worth — by assuring him, daily, that he matters. Telling him, in plain English, until it starts to sink into his malleable core.
Like many critics of the 2011 movie “The Help,” I took issue with several parts of the film, including the tired, patronizing arc of the white savior. But one thing that I appreciated—despite its hamfistedness—was the scene in which maid Abilene (played by the fantastic Viola Davis) tells the little white girl that she is basically raising: “You is kind, you is smart, you is important.” Mocked as it was, the line still resonated with me—maybe even more today as black boys and young men seem to be marked and virtually endangered in this country. These babies and young men and women need to be told that they are seen, needed and valued.
To carry out this important work, I’ll start where I am, here with this young boy, creating a similar mantra so he understands, accepts and holds as truth that he is important and smart and worthy. And that he can be the king of mountain, with his head high, letting the N-word and the other heinous taunts crash into the slush below him, where they belong.
Nicole Blades is an author and freelance journalist who writes about motherhood and race, identity, culture, and technology. Her second novel, THE THUNDER BENEATH US (Kensington), will be published next year. Follow her on Twitter @NicoleBlades.
This essay was originally posted on WashingtonPost.com.
I don’t even know where to start. I mean, I’ve been here before: heartsick, nettled, hurt, with a tight ball scratching the middle of my throat as I shake my head and say that this cannot continue.
How can it keep going on like this? The breaking point, we passed that long ago. But here we are again, staring at this thing — this assault on Black Lives — fresh.
But for me, the words, they are not coming this time. They’ve been lost, or more likely trapped beneath unbearable grief, outrage and exasperation at being here at this horrible nexus once more. Others have managed to drag sentiment and emotion out from under the rubble of all this and push the right sentences together to express how they feel, how I feel. And I’m grateful for that. I’m grateful for their important voices, letting me know that they’ve been crushed under the weight of it, too; that they are sick and tired of this warped paradigm and are desperately searching for new roads out of this deep, ugly pit into which we continue to sink.
People like Jon Stewart.
And people like:
Jamil Smith in The New Republic.
Anthea Butler in The Washington Post.
Charles P. Pierce in Esquire.
Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic.
Updated to include:
Edwidge Danticat in The New Yorker
And this must-read piece by Claudia Rankine called “The Condition of Black Life Is One of Mourning” in The New York Times Magazine. Rankine grabs all that’s weighing down my heart and spills it out across the page. For example, she writes:
“The truth, as I see it, is that if black men and women, black boys and girls, mattered, if we were seen as living, we would not be dying simply because whites don’t like us. Our deaths inside a system of racism existed before we were born. The legacy of black bodies as property and subsequently three-fifths human continues to pollute the white imagination. To inhabit our citizenry fully, we have to not only understand this, but also grasp it.”
I read Rankine’s piece standing at the kitchen counter, barely able to move, my skin soaking up each word.
(via The New Yorker)
These people (and many more) are helping me find my footing and focus again.
And while I’ve finally steadied myself enough to read about the nine victims killed at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on sites like BuzzFeed, I simply wasn’t prepared to watch this video of the victims’ families addressing the man who murdered their loved ones.
“You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you.”
They forgave him, while the despair and unimaginable pain were still raw and clawing at them. They forgave him. They looked at this man covered in darkness and evil and they let their light shine on him. Hearing the emotion in the families’ voices… it crushed me all over again, just wrenched my soul.
I’ve been trying to take care of myself, my mind and spirit, by backing away from social media on this horrible massacre and instead hanging out with my son this week, the start of his summer break. We went to a baking workshop where kids can make cookies one day, and off to a feel-good movie about well, feelings, the next day. I’ve put my entire effort into being a light for him, and he has been — as always — a clear and clean source of joy for me.
But I’m still tired. I’m still sad and angry. I’m still at a loss for what to do next, for how to get out of the quicksand of hopelessness.
Then on Friday, a friend posted something on Facebook that felt like a firm, steady hand lifting me up out of the muck. She did some research on things that she can do to “honor the victims of the terror attack in Charleston, and any ongoing efforts to unite and educate the public on how we can actively fight against racism.”
Here are some of the resources that she gathered:
- MoveOn Petition to remove Confederate flag from all government places
- Where you can donate to the funerals of the victims and local not-for-profits
- Donate to the AME Church (you can use PayPal)
- Learn more about the history AME Church and find a local church that you can visit this weekend and show your support, in person
- Sign this NAACP pledge to STOP HATE and get on their list to learn more about events and ways you can help move the needle on racism and racial injustice
And I’d like to add one more thing, especially for those of you who have a platform — a blog, a social media following, or whatever — please speak up. Even if you feel like you don’t have the words or fear saying them in the “wrong” way, please push that aside and lift up your voice. Write a blog post. Say a few words of meaning in the comment/caption of your Instagram photo. Share an important or informative article with your social media circle.
Do not be lulled into this false idea that it’s someone else’ s fight.
Do not let your silence betray your heart.
You are needed. Your voice, your support, they are needed. This battle is ours, and it’s going to take everyone operating on love, compassion, truth, and justice to bring about any real and meaningful change. Because it must change. It must.
I’ve probably mentioned a few times before that I like listening to podcasts when I go running. Today’s installment was from This American Life, one of my go-to podcasts.
This episode is called “Birds & Bees,” and it’s all about grown-ups talking to little kids about the things in life that are big and complicated: sex, death, race, and racism. They are the things that so many of us parents aren’t sure how to broach with our children. Honestly, many adults are still trying to negotiate their feelings around these prickly, serious subjects.
The race and racism segment of the show comes from comedian W. Kamau Bell, who is married to a white woman and the father of two daughters. After a rude, racist incident Bell experienced at a coffee shop in Berkley, California, he tries to figure out how deep he wants to wade into the treacherous “racism pool” with his young 4-year-old daughter.
Bell talks about race and racism in his comedy act all the time, but he wasn’t quite ready to delve into talking about racism in American and its violent history with his young daughter. He mentions using the book A Case For Loving — an MMM fave — as his jumping off point.
It’s a good piece. Definitely listen to the 22-minute segment. It’s Act Two: “If You See Racism, Say Racism.”
There’s a line from another father Bell speaks to about racism that keeps playing in my head:
“I don’t want my children confused. I want them knowledgeable.”
So true. About so many things in this life.
Which kind of leads me to the final act of the TAL podcast. It’s about trying to explain death to young kids, especially those who have lost a parent or sibling. The story focuses on this remarkable grief counseling center in Salt Lake City called The Sharing Place. It’s where kids can go to work through and understand their own grief.
The children sit in support groups led by adults and they talk. But it’s important to note how they talk about death; they use concrete language. “Because, the thinking goes, that’s how to process death’s finality. So people don’t pass away, you don’t lose them; they die,” reporter Jonathan Goldstein says.
The really heartbreaking part of the story was hearing these little voices, young children who have lost a parent or sibling to suicide, say the words raw: “… my father died. He shot himself in the head.”
This podcast segment is heavy. It is. But it’s useful and good, too. As an adult trying to raise a little being into whole and healthy grown-up, I think it’s important to listen to the heavy stuff. Because this life, it’s not all light and laughter, and we need to help our kids see that the weight of the heavy stuff is real, but it certainly won’t break you.
So, two fun things to share about me — Nicole, not Ms. Mary Mack — that aren’t really about parenting:
1) I’m going to be a speaker at the BlogHer 15: Experts Among Us conference in NYC this summer. My panel is essentially about, one of my favorite things: storytelling. More specific, it looks to answer the question, Where Does Personal Storytelling Fit In Today’s Social Mediasphere. It’s on July 17, 2015, at 11:30 a.m. Hope to see you there. And do make sure you say hello.
And, oh, yeah… Ava DuVernay will be the keynote speaker! Of course this means I will meet her. Of course! I mean, I already brushed shoulders with her many moons ago when I was an editor at ESPN.com and worked with her then eponymous PR company a couple of times. I always remembered her. But then, you never really forget a name like Ava DuVernay, right? And she has clearly proven with her vision and filmmaking that you simply will not forget about her. Can’t wait!
2) I was so honored to have an essay included in the fabulous book, Tales from Another Mother Runner: Triumphs, Trials, Tips, and Tricks from the Road that came out in March. Then, even more sweetness. The book’s editors, Dimity McDowell Davis and Sarah Bowen Shea — the talented duo that brought you the popular Run Like a Mother — asked me to join them for the Connecticut leg of their book tour. I happily able to read an excerpt from my essay (the same section I read on Dimity and Sarah’s podcast) and felt the swell of support from a room full of wonderful mother runners at my local running shop in West Hartford. It was pretty great.
One of those women in the audience, the lovely M.A.C. Lynch, contacted me this month asking if I would be down for interview with my husband about how he and I met and became a we.
(Me + He beaming at The Youngster’s pre-K “graduation.”)
The result was published in the Hartford Courant on Sunday, and the man and I are definitely tickled by it all. It’s nice telling Your Story again, you know? Remembering, reliving, and relishing it. And I hope you enjoy something from reading it now, too.