Race Relations: The Things We Say

It was the beginning of my 7th grade year. I had gotten a new pair of shoes for school. They were suede loafers. I was standing on the playground after lunch with a group of friends chatting. Someone in the group asked me where I got my new shoes. I spoke before thinking, trying to be funny I said, "I stole them off a dead n----r".
Me and Shawn Fennel in the 7th grade

My friend Shawn was black and she was standing there. I didn't considered how awful what I was saying was. I'd heard adults and other kids around me say that in jest. It was just a joke I thought. But it wasn't funny to Shawn. She looked at me with that look of utter disbelief that quickly changed into a look of anger, disgust and pain. Before I could say I was sorry she stormed off. She never talked to me again.

In that moment I learned that some things you can never take back. There are words we say because that is all we know, traits, actions that come from our upbringing that are so completely evil but we don't realize until we see through another person's perspective.

I thought I wasn't racist, I had black friends, I thought black boys were cute, but I also used the pain of African Americans as a punch line for jokes, jokes we wouldn't dare say in front of our black friends, jokes that I repeated without even considering how vile and hurtful they were toward black people.

I was a child raised completely unaware or race on one hand and yet aware of how to mock a race with disregard to their feelings on the other hand.

Even later in life as an adult living mostly among Christians, I had friends who would listen to tapes full of "black jokes" and if I said they offended me they would start telling me about all the black friends they had and they would always say "I'm not racist, I just think it's funny."

I am now the mother of a black boy, a biracial boy and a white girl. I worked at an inner city church and community outreach center from 2007 until 2014 and so I see the world through the eyes of my children now. 

One day when Steele, our bi-racial son was small he asked me, "Mom, if you call someone a Nigger' is that bad? Is that what I am?" I told him it was very bad to say that.

"Why do some black kids call each other that then?" he asked.

"I think they are just trying to be cool or something, I don't know, but you are not allowed to say that word or call anyone that, OK?"

It's never easy trying to teach children about words and what they mean, especially words that hurt some people but not others. Words related to race are the hardest to navigate for me as a white mother of black boys.

I know white people who say Nigga'. They think it's OK because they use the soft A not hard R. Why do people think that?

One very wise black friend of mine told me once, "White people think sometime that just because they have a certain type of relationship with one black person, they will have the same with me, don't assume that." 

I am constantly seeing stereo-types and racism exposed in my own life.  I try to read books on race and talk to people of other races about it. I think that is where the biggest problem is, that we don't talk about it with each other enough.

What I said in front of Shawn was repulsive. The fact that it came so naturally was worse. I wish I could tell her how sorry I am and that I'm different now. I see how gross that thinking is. I would love to tell her I'm different now.


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