It was a typical day with my little ones. We were in the living room taking in my favorite show of all time, My Little Pony (side eye, rolling into my head). The TV was low enough that while I was scrolling an endless list of unanswered emails I could hear the small talk of little ones. I’ll admit while I wasn’t totally paying attention to every detail of their conversation I noticed nothing amiss, that is until I heard it. My head popped up from the computer screen and I locked eyes with Big L. Her face was innocent enough, proving to me that she didn’t know the magnitude of what she was saying. She looked at me, waiting, waiting on an answer to her innocent request.
“Mama”, she said to me. At this time Little L turned to me as well. They sat looking expectantly at me. I stood somewhere in between complete awe that the question had arrived this early in her life and wonderment of where she could have heard the word. But before I could speak she said it again, “Mama, let’s talk about NI99As”, she smiled. I looked from Big L to Little L. In that moment nothing on the computer screen was as important as this conversation.
There was an odd sense to the irony. Most African American parents would be furious to have the word come from a four year old. They would assume that the four year old heard it because someone said it to them or they overheard people close by. None of that was important to me. Why? Well for starters we live in a world where that word is commonplace whether it’s our own people who use it in music, television or in passing conversation. Furthermore, it is still a derogatory word used by people with the intention to hurt, shame, or belittle. I decided to focus on making sure that word was never said again in my house or out of her mouth.
I realized that as she aged she’d come into contact with different people. While I’d love to be there to protect her from everything malicious in the world, the reality is I can’t. And as I watch her grow older I know that the things I teach and implant in her now will guide her when she is out of my reach. The goal was not to scold her. I’d be gentle in helping her understand not just the word itself but how to recognize anything that felt similar. Because sadly enough, I knew she’d hear it again.
I told them to come close to me and sit at my feet. I told her to look at me. I asked her what she saw. She replied, “You look sad, are you going to cry?” That was the exact reaction I wanted her to see. I asked her if she knew what it meant to pick at people or what it felt like when people made fun of her. Then I asked her for an example. Once she gave it to me I asked her how she felt when that happened. Her reply was sad and lonely. I then shared with her why I was sad. I told her the word is used to make people feel sad and it is used to pick at people. I told her that if anyone used that word toward her then it was not in a nice way and that the word should never be used again because it hurts. She then told me that she was sorry that it hurt me and that should would not use it again. But her next question was all the more important, “What does it mean?”. I couldn’t have been happier that she asked.
I was glad she asked what it meant because just saying a word is bad does not guarantee that it will remain unspoken. I do understand that some feel like using it takes the sting out of the initial meaning. However, if the initial meaning can still be used to completely humiliate another person then did you really disable it? I personally do not care about the word, it’s meaningless to me because it has no power in my life. My strength comes with God not mans perceived worth of me. My individuality and uniqueness are a badge not a disgrace. A word can never incapacitate me. However, I understand that people hung and marched so that I could arrive at it being useless. For that I am grateful but I will not allow my child to be oblivious to its meaning while she is not old enough to consider its worth.
I redirected her to my skin. She and I are colored differently. While I and Little L are what some would consider light, Big L and my husband are browner. I asked her what she saw as I pointed to my skin. She said light brown (she has grown, because at one point she said I was dark pink, then orange). Then I pointed to her, then asked about different friends and family members. I told her that we were all different shades of brown. But the word is used to group us all as “One”. One group not good enough, not measuring up, not like the rest. I told her that because we are not like others it is a word used to show that we are different, to make fun of being different.
Always the kid with a million questions, she went on, “Why are we different?” So without getting into genetics and things that the four year old mind cannot understand I did what most parents do. I told her a tale and made it good!