On Teaching White Sons Why They Can’t Say The N Word

On Teaching White Sons Why They Can’t Say The N Word July 23, 2018


Explaining to a 7-year-old white boy why his Black neighbor friends can use the N word but he can’t because the word they now use as a term of endearment and kinship has been laboriously re-appropriated after centuries of the word being used by white people to humiliate and dehumanize Blackness, and why that word therefore must never ever pass his lips

And it feels unfair to his 7-year-old self that they get to say a word we can’t. Or that, for example, women can call each other the B or C word in love and friendship, having re-appropriated them from the clutches of misogyny and patriarchy, but men shouldn’t. “Why do they get to say a word but I can’t!?” he asks.

Explaining to a 7-year-old white boy that what feels unfair to him is just a tiny sliver of Justice after hundreds and hundreds of years of injustice. And that any and every time he ever hears that word used by a white person, he must stand up against it because it is abusive and hurtful…

Explaining to a 7-year-old why and how and that a word of love on their lips is always and only a weapon on ours

Explaining that a word of friendship between them is always a word of hatred from us…

It’s a difficult and nuanced conversation we’ve been and will keep having over and over, no doubt. Because to my 7-year-old’s mind, none of this makes any sense. Not slavery, not hatred based on skin color, not words meaning different things depending who’s saying them.

But raising a white son who will only ever know the privileges inherent to his white maleness and training him to use his power to empower and uplift others is a responsibility I don’t take lightly.

And I will be damned if my son grows up to be like any number of middle-aged white dudes who still don’t get it, who still think it’s unfair that they don’t get to use that word while Black folks can.

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  • Ivan T. Errible

    Did you buy him his first pair of hipster glasses yet?

  • Ivan T. Errible

    Few things are a more certain sign of White upper middle class privilege than having this conversation with your son and telling other people about it. You might as well have put up a pic of yourself standing next to your late model Subaru.

  • The Mouse Avenger

    You’re doing a great job at raising your son to be an enlightened member of society. 🙂 Thank you!

  • Mr. James Parson

    My GF’s great nephew is 1/2 black, 1/4 Mexican, 1/8 Puerto Rican, and 1/8 white. I wonder what words he can use.

  • amycourts

    First of all, we drive a Prius.

    Secondly, indeed, as a person with privilege living in an area of Minneapolis where our neighbors most decidedly do not enjoy these privileges, I have a responsibility to speak up about systemic injustices and microaggressions that favor me and my son while harming my neighbors’ kids. Shouldn’t we all be having these conversations openly, Ivan?

  • amycourts

    I would imagine that’s a conversation best suited to your girlfriend’s great nephew’s parents. Probably not your business.

  • amycourts

    Yes, and thank God! He’s a much more confident and comfortable reader now that his astigmatism and amblyopia have been addressed!

  • HappinessPursuit

    My friend in high school was very close to that. He never knew what to check on job applications!

    Not sure if it was ok for him to use that word, because he really looked more Hispanic than black. He probably would have to carry around an “Ancestry DNA” report to justify the use of the word. “Nope, look right here on my piece of paper. I can use it. I’ve got that privilege!”

  • Mr. James Parson

    My GF has to take care of him when his parents are in jail so I get to hear in on this kinds of stuff.

    But you are right, it is none of my business.

  • Ivan T. Errible

    Why didn’t god just not give him astigmatism and amblyopia in the first place? What a weird “supreme being”!

  • Ivan T. Errible

    Where does this “responsibility’ come from, if you don’t believe in any gods?

  • Kevin R. Cross

    Responsibility towards what we think matters, like community, family, nation (if we’re patriotic). Or just a sense of justice. Responsibility requires only maturity, not belief.

  • Chaplain America

    I understand and appreciate the sentiment, but, it must be said that black people MUST reject the use of that word by anyone, including ourselves. Usint that word isn’t about kinship. It isn’t about the love of our own kind. The use of that word is just the self-inflicted dehumanization of our own people. I urge all black people to stop using a word that has been used in this country for centuries to make you and me less than full participants in this country’s story.

  • Chaplain America

    he should write “Human”

  • amycourts

    Your question presumes that a person cannot live by a moral compass or honor any responsibility to love and care for others without a belief in a god.

    Whether or not I personally believe in God is neither here nor there. It would seem you, Ivan, need there to be a god in order for *you* to behave kindly and responsibly and morally toward your fellow humans. That without a higher being commanding goodness and kindness from you (and threatening hellfire should you fail or disobey), you’d feel no compulsion to your fellow humans. I think that’s sad. It tells me you don’t truly love your neighbors or sense any connection or cooperation with them for the betterment of all; Rather, you do what you think god tells you to do in order to avoid punishment. And without that threat, you’d happily consider only your self.

    Millions and millions of non-religious, agnostic, and atheistic people love and care for and give themselves up for others not out of duty toward a divine being who may smite or reward their actions, but because it is good and life-giving to be connected to each other, and because we understand innately and through experience that we’re only as strong as the weakest among us.

    So to answer your question: Responsibility comes from within, and from connection to each other. From, as Kevin noted, an innate sense of justice and kindness, and maturity. Those who need it to come from a god tell me far more about their own belief systems than it does about mine.

  • amycourts

    I completely respect your perspective and I’ve had a few POC push back on this point (while others have upheld it). Regardless, I don’t think it’s my place to step into Black spaces and tell Black people what words they can and cannot use. I can speak from my observation of friends and neighbors, both in how I’ve heard them use it and from what they’ve told me directly, that it’s been used to express kinship. But whether or not it SHOULD be used by POC is not a conversation I need or have any right to be part of.

  • amycourts

    Indeed. It’s funny how in one comment you implicitly argue there can be no morality or human responsibility without belief in god while in another you make a strong case that a god that would even allow or give someone astigmatism and amblyopia is a weird — even itself immoral — supreme being. Wouldn’t a good supreme being just keep everyone from vision disorders or cancer or bleeding to death like I did?

    You make a strong case for unbelief right there.

  • Obscurely

    Definitely a Facebook-able moment!! 😉

  • Ivan T. Errible

    They’re both impossible; therefore belief in god is pointless.

  • Ivan T. Errible

    You can live by a moral compass; you’ve just proven that religion is a waste of time, trouble, and money. If you can do all these things without religion, why bother with it? Why run twice as fast to get to the same place?

  • Ivan T. Errible

    If it doesn’t require belief, why bother with religion? Why bother to run twice as fast just to get to the same place?

  • Kevin R. Cross

    I don’t know, I DON’T bother with religion.

  • John

    Nope, your 7 year old has it correct – your position makes no sense. Hypocrisy that perpetuates racism.

  • amycourts

    Interesting that you find the reasoning powers of a small child to be superior to mature, nuanced critical thought.

    But noted nonetheless.

    Perhaps one day you’ll venture beyond second grade logic to understand more than your own perspective. We can hope that for you, anyway.

  • John

    Nah, this is just a case of a child being able to see through the discombobulated logic of adults.

  • amycourts

    Again, it’s interesting — and noted — that you think the idea of respecting other human beings by not degrading them with dehumanizing epithets is “discombobulated logic.” There are so many things that we are “allowed” to do because freedom and free speech and whatever — but we choose not to do them because they’re disrespectful and dehumanizing.

    What about this notion of respecting others is illogical to you, John?

  • Brandon Roberts

    i’ll be as nice and nonconfrontational as possible but personally i disagree with not allowing white people to say the n word i view the context as most important yes obviously if anyone is using that word to be derogatory towards black people that is bad and they shouldn’t but if it’s just a person singing a song or referring to a friend or joking i don’t see the issue, there are a lot more pressing issues facing black communities.

  • Ivan T. Errible

    Is there anyone who claims to be handing out dispensations for using this word?

  • Ivan T. Errible

    Great! I love making the case for unbelief.