Last month on Valentine’s Day, I was listening to a talk radio show about schools, guns, and the Parkland shooting.
I don’t like guns. I don’t want guns in schools. But as I listened to the show, what occurred to me is this: there are invisible weapons just as dangerous as guns.
I live in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. Let me describe Ponte Vedra for you. It’s our ritzy little idyllic community. Our grass is literally greener than everyone else’s. We have beach clubs and a famous golf tournament and super excellent schools. In fact, that’s why we live there, my husband and me and our three children and three dogs.
A few months ago, my high school daughter told me that some of her friends were using the term ‘nig’ to refer to each other. Like, ‘okay, nig, see you later.’ Or, ‘love ya, nig.’ Again, these are Ponte Vedra kids, so they’re mostly white. Only 10 percent of the kids there are other than white. Only two percent are black. The ones using the word were white.
We wanted our kids to go to the best schools. Now, my daughter is a junior at Ponte Vedra High School, my son is in 8th grade at Landrum Middle, also in Ponte Vedra, and my youngest daughter is in 6th grade at Landrum. My children, who were adopted from Vietnam and Guatemala, are helping to integrate those schools. Today. In 2019.
“Wow,” I said. “That’s really uncool.”
“I know,” she said. “It bugs me.”
Soon afterwards, I was talking to some women about a book we had read called Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult. It’s about a black female nurse who is wrongly accused of killing the newborn child of two white supremacists. It’s so-so, as a novel. But it provides some decent talking points about racism and race-related issues. So I retold the story my daughter had relayed to me.
‘Wait a minute,’ said one woman. “I mean, I don’t think it’s right, but you can’t really blame the kids. Like, if Kanye and JayZ can use those words in their music, kids are going to think it’s okay.”
I was aghast. “It’s our job to teach them that it’s not okay,” I said.
“So,” said the woman, “it’s okay for Kanye and JayZ to use the N word, but not okay for our kids?”
“Yes!” I said. “Yes! That’s how it works!”
We forced black people to endure centuries of slavery and oppression, and now we can’t use the N word! It seems…fair?
It’s not fair, of course. It’s more like a tiny act of contrition we can make. So why can’t all of us make it?
Soon afterwards, my 8th grade son came home with another N-word story. A boy in class, he said, had been suspended for passing out pieces of paper with the N-word handwritten on it followed by the word ‘pass,’ like permission slips to say the N-word. Apparently, this is actually a thing.
I think I was speechless for a moment. Then: “THAT’S HORRIBLE,” I kind of shouted. “Mom,” my 12-year-old daughter said. “People say that all the time.”
“Really? All the time?” I asked.
“No, I guess not all the time,” she said. “But they say it a lot. I hear it at least once a day.” Her brother confirmed that he hears the word not infrequently.
Okay, I went on a little rant at this point, with liberal use of the F-word, which is not embargoed in our house.
“Do you understand why this word is so terrible?” I asked them.
“Yes,” said my son. “It’s racist.”
“Well, yes,” I said. “That’s true. But it’s actually worse than that.”
According to historians, the word itself probably was a Southern mispronunciation of the word Negro, which probably derived from Niger, the Latin word for black. All of that is pretty benign.
But slaveowners turned the word into a dehumanizing term for their human chattel. Spit out of their mouths, the word lashed slaves with stinging humiliation, an invective with the vile goal of keeping a people down. The writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of Between the World and Me, which should be required reading, wrote: “And I saw that what divided me from the world was not anything intrinsic to us but the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named us matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” That’s the power of a single damned word.
I told my kids: The N word was used before black people had any rights in this country. It was used as a way to make them feel like they were animals, and like they weren’t even human beings. It was a way to demoralize them, and remind them that they had no power and no control over their lives.
My son’s eyes grew wide. He nodded, and blinked hard.
I called a dean at Landrum Middle School to talk about this. I told him I had heard about the pieces of paper being handed out, and that my children reported hearing the N-word used regularly. I explained my concerns.
He paused. “We take incidents like these very seriously,” he said. “The student was disciplined immediately, and we do not tolerate that kind of behavior.”
“I understand,” I said. “I’m not questioning your discipline policy. I’m more concerned that, in a majority white school, there’s not enough emphasis placed on the importance of racial tolerance.
I suggested they consider some kind of school-wide workshop, or a course for teachers, or something like that. Anything.
He gave me a somewhat generic response. His kids attend the middle school, too, he said. He also wants to make sure it’s the best school it can be.
Academically, it’s already a great school, as is the high school. But how great can they be if they’re not teaching kids about race relations, one of the core issues ripping at the seams of America today? What happened at Parkland was a travesty. What happened at Sandy Hook seven years ago was also a travesty. We should be demanding new gun laws, all of us.
In the now, though, that’s not what I worry about. Every single day, students in my community – students whose exposure to diversity is limited to television and music – are casually throwing around a loaded word with the power to divide and conquer. And that, I believe, is every bit as dangerous as a gun.