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.
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