Friday, July 9, 2010

speechless in sebago

So there we are at the playground. There was another little boy about Marin's age and the kids started playing with him. He starts doing the 'eeny meeny miny mo' rhyme and goes with the 'catch a nigger by the toe' version. You know, it's Maine. I'm not gonna lie. Me and my friends used to say that all the time in elementary school. There were no blacks in our school. But it's been about a hundred years since I heard a kid say 'nigger' so I just kind of stood there hoping the moment would blow by. No.

Marin: Daddy, what's nigger mean?
Me: (crap - trying to buy time because I had not previewed this situation in my head) Marin, I'm not sure, let me think about it.
Marin: you know Daddy, tell me the truth

Parents of Ethiopians know that these kids don't come with the baggage of slavery and discrimination that many black Americans grew up with. Eth kids can't get their heads around it because where they come from, brown skinned people are all up and down the social and economic ladder and there is are no white skinned people to practice discrimination. Back to the playground.

Me: (to the little boy) Do you know what a nigger is? (hoping he doesn't)
Boy: Yes. You're one (pointing at Marin)
Marin: What is he talking about?

By this time, the boy's mother can see he is getting uncomfortable so she walks over (after snuffing out her cigarette, shutting off her iPhone, and dumping out her beer - OK I made up the beer part).

Mom: What's wrong honey?
Boy: This man is asking me questions.
Mom: Why are you bothering him?
Me: I'm not. Did you hear what he said?
Mom: I did.
Me: Can you help me out here?
Mom: You leave my son alone.
Me: I will, I am just wondering how I should explain this to my kids. Can you help me?
Mom: Listen buddy, if you can't solve your own problems, maybe you shouldn't have kids. (grabs son by elbow and walks away)

So, I guess I got told by the white trash Mom. I actually felt a little bad for the kid. He recognized he had said something inappropriate, but he could not figure out what it was or why. I imagine this word gets used regularly around his house and he is insensitive to it. His Mom is obviously not going to inform him.

I guess I should feel fortunate it took us 3.5 years to encounter the N word. I still have not told Marin what it means. Any ideas re how to address this?


Erin Starks-Teeter said...

You could tell her it is a mean word that people used to use a lot when they were talking about people with dark skin. It is never appropriate to say because it can be very hurtful and makes the speaker look very ignorant, but sometimes people don't know any better and say it anyway. Then you could run through some different approaches she could use when dealing with people that use that word. It's certainly an uncomfortable situation. Good luck. :-(

Gwillem said...

A possible approach complementary to Erin's above, might be to explain that there are a myriad of ways that discrimination occurs every day: discrimination based on origin (at least here in Europe), ability to express oneself (language), weight, general appearance, age, clothes, choice of hobby, etc. etc.

This way your children won't feel victimised or singled out if they are the only dark-skinned people in Maine. Discrimination affects everyone, and is practised by everyone, wittingly or unwittingly as your childhood example shows.

Maybe your girls can even learn how they may have acted in a discriminatory way, themselves, occasionally.

We would recommend you talk to Meron soon. She's probably already asked her schoolmates and obtanied a less thoughtful explanation! :-)

We suspect that, ironically, African-Americans are more relaxed about the word than Caucasian Americans. An African-American mom may call over to her 5-year-old: "Come on over here, nigger" when she's cross with him, but we can't say that with certainty, because we can't speak for everyone's feelings, especially when we're not part of that community.

The best thing you can do is to let your daughters feel that you confront the topic confindently and without detours. If you do that they will develop the same ability to cope as you.

Thank you for sharing this topic with us. It's made us develop our own thoughts.


Anonymous said...


Enat- Amharic for Mother said...

You do a great job with all situations with your children and know this one will be no different. A few thoughts came to mind. First, with a chuckle, lesson learned on not asking a stranger to jump in and help parent (a parent whose child uses the n word no less). Secondly, aside from explaining the n word to Marin a huge apology to her may be helpful. Tell Marin that you are so sorry that she had to hear such a sad word on the playground from another child. Tell Marin you are so sorry that the other mother did not come over to teach her son (son is not to blame) about hurtful words. Tell Marin you are so sorry for not giving her an explanation or a definition on the n word on the spot (Daddy was so sad you heard that word. Daddy was so sad that the word even exists. Daddy is so sad that he felt so uncomfortable, shocked and awkward and made you wonder all by yourself in your own head what the word means). I believe saying sorry and taking the blame for things outside of our/our children's control shows them that the pressure is off their shoulders and helps to ease the burden of taking things personally (THEY WILL TAKE THINGS PERSONALLY). My apology to my child shows them that I cannot protect them from hearing, seeing, experiencing certain things, but that I will be there to help walk them through the discomfort, confusion, the unknown.
On a practical note: When I hear a child on the playground say something inappropriate in front of my children, I do step in and say, "Sorry, gang, we are not allowed to use that word in our house. How about we try saying this instead?" I then address the word that was said later in the car or at home. I have not fully investigated this website, but may have some helpful explanations on explaining the n word:
Good Luck!

Shannon- said...

You are the coolest cucumber!

I have no idea how best to respond. If you find out tell me at the gathering. I still struggle with not getting my dander up and just letting good behavior set the bar and turning it around, like you did.

Corinne said...

I got chills while reading your post. It hurts so much to be in a position like that. Ignorant people abound. We are just starting to talk about race and MLK at home, so I would have been of no use in that situation, but this has given me pause to think about what I should do if it happens. I liked the "stepping in and saying that's not appropriate" approach and explaining it later during a quiet moment in the car etc. However we approach it is better than ignoring it.

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