Parenting is a trip. It’s normally, at least in my experience, a fascinating experiment set that tests the depths of my affection and impatience, somehow simultaneously. And I have been tested this week, as a parent for sure, but also as a people-loving man.
The ‘N’ Word
My oldest is nine. He’s tender-hearted, compassionate, and deeply engaged in family and friendship. I love him, but not just because he’s mine… he’s just awesome. And recently, a friend at school told him about a movie he watched and a weird word he’d heard.
My son heard the ‘N’ word that day.
First, and important that I state it up front, the little boy that my son learned it from didn’t have a definition for the word, and seemingly didn’t understand the context it was used in. So basically, an innocent kid told another innocent kid an awful, awful thing. And their teacher and school principle did an exceptional job walking both boys through the awfulness of some words.
Second, it breaks my heart that a word that has historically dehumanized humans, extended prejudice, supported racism, and proved to be a conduit for hatred and evil now rings around in my child’s head. Yes, it was going to happen ‘one day’. And yes, it’s normal for him to hear bad words. But profanity is one thing [full disclosure – I love Jesus, but I cuss a little], as those words can have a lot of contexts: offense, insult, humor, emotion, emphasis, etc. But the ‘N’ word only has one context outside of black American culture. And the other contexts within black American culture don’t really make sense to me, which is fine. See, I’m not black, so an explanation isn’t needed. As a white guy, that word has a single context, and all of its meanings are atrocious.
So, what do I do with that?
Intentional, Clueless Parenting
I beat him. The end.
Just kidding… we talked. And any worry he had about the discipline associated with doing bad things evaporated when his dad cried. Yeah, I cried. I really hate that word. And I really love that boy. I will never be ok that anyone knows that word, but especially my sweet children.
So then came the daunting task of explaining centuries of hate and racism, marked by initial enslavement, war, defining people with dark skin as 3/5 of a person, hate groups, sanctioned violence, into today and how it has persisted with horrible words (among many other things) like the one he had just learned.
I still don’t know what to tell him. We talked, but I don’t feel like I crushed the discussion. But if you’re reading this and you think your brown-skinned child is a friend of his, trust that I tried my hardest to raise the brilliance and beauty of your son or daughter to the light, while casting racism and prejudice into the darkness it belongs to.
Excluding v. Including
The problem with defining something like an insult, is that you attach the group(s) associated with the insult to the insult… and that’s just stupid. In order to tell my kid why that word hurts my hurt and deeply offends people that we love, I have to explain the association.
If there’s a better way to explain it, I don’t know it. But man, I wish I did.
We have such a bad habit, humanity, of excluding people. We are against so many things, and our language so often reflects who we exclude. And oftentimes, we are so proud of our uniquenesses that we create strange factions of belonging. All the while, we are creating large groups of the excluded.
I bring that up because I am now faced with the reality that my son just created two awful groups: people who use the ‘N’ word, and people that could be labeled by the ‘N’ word. And I don’t want him to have either group in his head. I want my son… my family… all of us, really, to speak life into a group that hates and to speak life into a group that’s hated. But not because we can tell the difference.
What if we just spoke the language of belonging to everyone? What if the measure of our speech was quantified by the number of people that felt like they belonged to our groups, and we belonged to theirs too? Even if it’s not true!! What if Christians/Muslims spoke so lovingly to all people, that everyone just loved Christians/Muslims in spite of the differences that we know we have? What if the poor/wealthy in our nation were so welcoming that the wealthy/poor just liked being around them? What if, instead of untrue monikers like ‘colorblindness’, we all wanted to know everyone else’s cultures? What if differences were lauded? What if we loved… just loved… all the time. Love.
I know, I know, I know… I sound ridiculous.
But this morning, I got a phone call I didn’t want. A mentor in my life died just last night. [To CJ’s family and friends… thank you for sharing him with me for the last decade.] And I am running out of mentors. I am running out of leaders who can speak into my life and guide me as I balance the disappointments of reality with the joys of… reality. And while that is a bit scary, to feel like I am down a rudder while the flow of life is not slowing down, I am grateful.
I’m grateful that the mentors and friends and family in my life have pointed me to a place I didn’t know I was prepared for.
My son heard the ‘N’ word this week, and I got to be the voice of love, inclusion, and faith to one of my favorite people.
Not a bad way to have a tough day.
Go love people. All the people.