I froze. Standing in my kitchen, working on an assembly line of sandwiches for five children, I heard it: the "N" word.
It came out of a tablet that one of the kids from the neighborhood had brought over. Usually, I have a "no screens" policy when kids come over to play. My house has an open door and I regularly have at least two to three other children at my house. They know that when they come to my house, they play with real toys and real games: Legos, make-believe, hide and seek, etc. That day, one of the kids was so excited about a new tablet that they had gotten for their birthday, and they asked if they could show it to my kids. "Only for a minute, while I'm making lunch. After that, it goes away, okay?" "Okay!" they answered giddily, as they all crowded around the couch.
In my "so-and-so wants mustard with turkey and so-and-so wants ham with mayonnaise" state, I wasn't ready. I wasn't ready to hear that word come out of my family room. Out of that tablet. Off of an Instagram account. The oldest kid in the room was seven. Seven.
I took a deep breath, while my head whirled through a million thoughts: Do I make it a big deal? If I make it a big deal, it becomes a big deal. Maybe they didn't hear it. How do I handle this? Okay. Here goes.
"Hey guys, what are you watching?" I asked with what was almost certainly a forced smile. "It's a bad video!" said one of them quickly. This kid is always my mole, always the first one to tell me what's really going on. "Why is it bad?" I asked. "It says the 'N' word in it!" ("At least they know it's bad," I thought.) "What's the 'N' word?" my son asked with gleaming eyes, so excited to learn a new bad word from his older, more knowledgable friend. "You know, the 'N' word." said the Mole. "No. I don't know. What is it?" asked my six-year-old. "You know. N-I-G ..." "OKAY! STOP!" I took a breath and they looked at me, a little stunned, as I hardly ever raise my voice when friends are over. "That is an ugly, hateful word and it has no place in this house, not even by accident. Kids, I hope I never hear any of you say it. I really don't even want you to ever hear it again. I'm going to need the tablet now. Lunch is ready."
And that was the end of it. For then. The neighbor kids went home and I was left with my six-year-old son. I had to address it. He's at an age when he wants to know about everything and the idea of "bad words" is particularly salacious. If he didn't learn about it from me, he would find out from someone else. It was a conversation I had to have.
I called my best friend, who happens to be black. I whispered from an upstairs closet what had happened, still in panic mode. "What are my talking points? How do I handle this?" She was much calmer than I was, "You've got this. Just be honest. And remember that it's actually a privilege that he's gotten to be six years old and unaware of race." Mic drop. Privilege checked. Downstairs I went.
"Hey buddy," I started, "We need to talk about what you heard today." "About what?" he asked with his big innocent blue eyes. "The 'N' word, We need to talk about it." "Oh yeah!" he said, his face lighting up, "What is it?" "Well, it's a long story and we have to talk about some stuff that happened a long time ago to understand it."
And I talked to him. About everything. With complete honesty. I told him that people with our color skin are called "white people." (His response? "That's ridiculous! We're peach!") And how people who look like my friend are called "black people." ("But they're brown!" he protested.) "I completely agree. I don't know who came up with that. As far as I'm concerned, we can still be peach and brown people. It makes much more sense. I'm just telling you what everyone else says, so you'll know when you hear it."
I told him how slave ships kidnapped people and brought them to our country to work for no pay. I explained what a slave was and how he and I are descendants of slave owners, that our family was part of it. I told him how slave families were split apart, how kids didn't get to live with their parents sometimes, how it was a dark time for our country. We talked about how slave children weren't allowed to go to school, how they had to learn to read and write and do math in secret. "Why didn't they just leave?" he asked. "They would have been badly hurt or killed." He responded, "God is going to be really mad at those people, Mama." From the mouths of babes.
We talked about how there was a big war in our country and how Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves. He asked, "Who built all the schools?" I didn't understand what he was asking. He persisted, "Who built the schools? You know, for all those kids who were slaves and didn't get to go to school. They got to go to school then, right?" (I was so surprised by that response, when I really shouldn't have been. That's the life of a six-year-old, isn't it? School is everything.)
So, I took another deep breath. "Yes, you're right. They did get to go to school. But we have to talk about something called segregation, which said that black kids and white kids couldn't go to the same school. Or eat at the same restaurants. Or use the same bathrooms. Or even drink from the same water fountains." He looked stunned, letting that idea set in, then he stammered, "But ... but ... what if a brown kid loved pizza and he couldn't even go to the pizza place?! He couldn't go?! Even if it were his favorite food?! Why would people make those rules?!"
And I was honest. As honest as I knew how to be. "I don't know. I think that people are afraid of things they don't know. They're afraid of what happens when things change. And change can be scary. Think about how scared you were when you started Kindergarten at a new school, going into a new classroom with a new teacher. I think that a lot of white people were scared of what would happen to their lives when the laws changed. And the good news is that those bad laws don't exist anymore, right? And the reason that they don't exist anymore is because there were a lot of people who said, 'Hey! That's not right!' and they fought for that, for everyone to be treated the same."
"How did they fight? I would have punched those people in the face." I liked the enthusiasm, but not necessarily the violence. "Well, actually, one of the leaders who fought was a really good man named Martin Luther King, Jr., and he talked a lot about fighting without hurting people. He was a man of God, like people we hear talk in Big Church. And he stood up and said that everyone should be treated the same, no matter what they looked like. And that's right. And a lot of people agreed with him. And a lot of people didn't."
"So what happened, Mama?" And I told him. "He was killed. Someone shot and killed him."
I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience having this conversation with my barely six-year-old boy. I felt like I was stealing his innocence. I felt like I was pulling his childhood out of his body and dragging it through mud, the dirty history of our nation. But I also knew that it was important. It was important to know about all of it. So, I went on.
"So, that's part of why it's a big deal to a lot of people that we have a black president. It's a big deal because it wasn't that long ago that having a black president wasn't a possibility at all. And the fight is still going on, for everyone to be treated the same. It's different now, but there are still people who don't want that change. That's why we have to talk about this word. I think the "N" word might be the worst of all the bad words. And here's why: It is a word made out of hate. It's a word that's made to make people feel like less than they are, which is a way to separate someone else from God. To make someone feel like they're not worthy of God's love is very, very wrong. And that's part of what that word does.
"And it's not the only word like it. There are lots of words. And I'm not going to tell you what they are. You'll know them when you hear them. Any word that makes someone feel bad about who they are, the color of their skin, how they pray, who they love, ANY word that tries to make someone else feel small is wrong. And it is our job — it is YOUR job — to stand up when you hear something wrong and say, 'Hey, that's not right. Don't say that around me.' And you don't have to be mean about it. I wasn't mean to your friends today, right? But it IS important to say something. Because that's how things change and that's how we can help. Hate has no place in this house. I wish it weren't in our world at all. But it is."
Then I said this, "I'm going to tell you what it is. It's the only time you will ever hear me say it. I want you to know what it is, so you'll know it when you hear it." And then I said it. That ugly, hateful word. It felt dirty in my mouth. He looked surprised, maybe thinking that it doesn't sound like what a six-year-old would imagine a bad word to sound like. He was quiet. I could almost see the wheels turning in his head. I asked him if he had any questions.
He paused, looking down at his hands, and then up again and said, "I mean, we're all God's children." Yes, sweet child. Let's go with that.
I know that this won't be the last time we have to talk about race. (I mean, I have yet to have a similar conversation with my younger three children.) But even with my six-year-old, it's just the beginning of a conversation, and that conversation could well last a lifetime. My hope is that by being honest with my children, I will keep the door open for the future, for more difficult conversations. I hope that they will know that we're all figuring it out together.