My 12-year-old daughter, Kenya, got called a nigger for the first time earlier this month. Not in the down-with-my-homie vernacular of hipsters. This was in the original, racist form. That n word.
She’d been walking in a mall with friends when a roughly 3-year-old white girl pointed and spat, “You’re a nigger! You’re a nigger!”
Toddlers don’t talk like that. Clearly, the child was parroting something adults had taught her. So it made sense that accompanying parents didn’t chastise or shush the child. They just kept walking, stone-faced.
At first, Kenya wasn’t sure she’d heard the little girl correctly. She turned to her Latina friends and said, “Did that kid just say what I think she said?”
Her friends confirmed, “Oh my G-d! She just called you a nigger!”
That’s Kenya’s n-word story. It’s an unfortunate rite of passage for African-Americans. We all have that “first time someone called me a …” story. We remember exactly when it happened and where. And how it made us feel.
I was maybe 9 or 10 the first time it was hurled at me. My father had had to drop some papers off at work. Rather than haul my twin sister, Ashley, and I through the corridors of his high-rise office building, he’d directed us to a park next door that had a playground. This was the 1970s, when people thought nothing of letting kids play outside unsupervised. Daddy figured he was only going to be gone a few minutes. We’d be fine.
He was so wrong.
There were a bunch of white boys playing there. Perhaps a half dozen of them. As Ashley and I approached, they all froze in place and stared. Self-consciously, we boarded a roundabout and started spinning. The boys surrounded us, screaming, “Go home, niggers! Go home! We don’t want you here!”
Smirking, I looked at Ashley and said, “Should we tell them?”
“Tell them what?” she asked as her eyes darted from one to the other of our tormentors, who were still yelling and moving closer.
“That Daddy’s white!” I said incredulously.
Ashley rolled her eyes. “It doesn’t matter.”
“What do you mean it doesn’t matter?”
“I mean it doesn’t matter!” she snapped.
In my innocence, I had truly believed that having a white father somehow cancelled out the stigma of a black mother. How could I be a nigger if I was half white? The word didn’t apply to me. Didn’t they understand that?
I was trying to process this when I spotted my father, who had come to collect us. His face was ashen because the encroaching boys were still shouting at the top of their lungs. And then I saw something that really terrified me. A single tear trickling down Daddy’s face. It was the first time I’d seen any grown man cry, much less my own father.
That tear burst my naïve bubble and was far more frightening than being surrounded by angry racists. See, I worshipped my father as a little girl. I thought he was invincible. If those mean boys had made someone as impermeable as Daddy cry, what could they do to me?
Before I could go into a full-fledged panic attack, the circle of boys fell silent and parted to let Daddy through. He took my hand, then my sister’s, and said softly, “Let’s go.”
As we walked to our car, Ashley told my father she’d wanted to beat up all those boys, but we were outnumbered. Then she asked if he’d be terribly offended if she called them honkeys. Daddy said by all means, be his guest. So Ashley looked over her shoulder and called, “Honkeys!”
The boys countered, “Niggers!”
And so it went until we were inside the car, where we couldn’t hear them anymore.
I saw my father looking at Ashley in the rear view mirror as we pulled out of the parking lot. She was still fuming, but Daddy was smiling, clearly proud of her courage and spunk.
Nobody was proud of me that day. When Ashley’s eyes met mine, I saw only disdain, and my face burned hot with shame.
To this day, the memory of that encounter stirs a vague sense of self-loathing, which is just how those boys wanted me to feel. Mission accomplished.
It was interesting that when I shared with friends what had happened to Kenya at the mall, older black people were deeply concerned about her emotional state. They were remembering their own firsts, and they assumed she was traumatized.
Younger friends of all races expressed outrage, but they didn’t ask if Kenya was OK.
I suppose, in a morbid sort of way, that’s a sign of progress. Young folks don’t react to the word the way my generation does. Against the backdrop of a black president in the White House and interracial couples kissing on screen in movies, they have thicker skin and a totally different frame of reference.
But regardless of age, all of my friends wanted to know how Kenya responded to the racial slur. I had wondered, too, because I wasn’t there at the time. She’d told me about it when she got home.
“I just laughed,” Kenya said. “We all did. That’s just bad parenting.”
Then she shook her head, grabbed some pop out of the refrigerator and went to her bedroom to do homework.
Courtenay Edelhart is a journalist, Reform Jew and single mother by choice via adoption. She lives in Bakersfield, California, with two children, an obnoxious Chihuahua, and assorted dying houseplants.
Header image courtesy of Pixabay.