N-word 2020 – by Terry Howard

Years ago, I penned a piece, “The N-Word Still Stings,” a day after having the word – rather, the dagger – hurled at me from beer guzzling cowards on the back of a pickup truck while I was out walking in the neighborhood. Which brings us back into the N-word conundrum in February 2020. It continues to raise its ugly head – during African American History Month 2020, mind you. During “post racial America,” mind you. During America “made great again,” mind you.

You see, in a small city in the South, one still reeling from an acrimonious removal of the name of a Confederate general from the local school, a white kid called an African American classmate the “N-Word.” And the black kid’s mom went ballistic. When the local newspaper picked up on this controversy, it published it. Soon the small city deteriorated into a city-wide freak out along racial line.

Now when someone who lives in that city read my years ago “N-Word Still Stings” piece asked me to write something contemporary on the issue, I agreed. However, this time I decided to get input from three professionals whose views I greatly respect – one each from Texas, California and New Jersey (a white male, a Black female and an Asian female, two of them lawyers). Here are the questions I posed:

  1. If you were to suggest a strategy for resolving this conflict, what would it consist of?
  2. What language would you suggest that the parents of both the white kid and the black kid use in addressing this situation even handedly?
  3. How best would you suggest healing an already hurting community?
  4. And most important, what should the school do here?

“If I were the Principal, I would start by asking the parents of the white student why did their child use this term, and do they know how offensive it is? There may be an opportunity for a greater learning here. As for the parents of the African American child, I would include them in a subsequent discussion in an attempt to bring general learning and understanding. Finally, there may be an opportunity for the student body and teachers, etc. to have a Town Hall type of meeting — maybe with local NAACP representatives, clergy, etc.”                                                           

Advice from New Jersey

“It’s hard to provide specific advice without knowing more of the context (e.g. Is there a school policy on this? Is there a pattern from the white classmate of bullying and name calling more generally? Was there a history of conflict between the two students, and this is an escalation?  Were there others involved? Is this a school where there are very few African American students? etc.)  Terry, here’s resource you may want to include in your article: https://www.wikihow.com/Deal-with-Name-Calling-Bullies    

Advice from California

“I am sorry to hear this happened. Did they have any other witnesses? It’s hard to put myself in his shoes without further context. I wondered if his son had a relationship with the other student to be able to say at the moment, “Hey, that’s not nice, or that’s not kind,” and what was your intent when you used that word? Was it reported to the teachers? Was the white classmate repeating it because they heard it used in songs and not realize it is inappropriate to repeat?  

I recall being told as a child by my parents that if someone called me a “chink” to remember that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can only harm me if I let them,” and that I was supposed to tell my teacher and parents. I still remember my parents calling the other kid’s parents and asking them if they realized what their son was doing and how they felt about it.

Luckily my parents kept a cool head and showed me that you could have a respectful conversation about the situation without attacking the people. A regrettable incident happened, so let’s get it on the table and talk about it. We can all agree we want our kids to feel welcomed, included, respected, and safe in school. I still remember my parents’ calm approach, even though I know they were angry.  

Another thought is to use mindful breathing before going into the situation to reduce the tension. Ask an open-ended question out of curiosity and listen to understand, not to attack. I wonder where the child who said the N-word learned that word and how do we know he understands how it makes people feel when he says it? What do you think is the right consequence for making bad choices of words at this age? I believe that a heartfelt apology that acknowledged what he said was hurtful word, recognize the negative impact it caused on others, and regret his actions.                             

Advice from Texas

A true confession here: I too had to deal with the experience of having my two sons called the N-word while they were in school. And I thank the Good Lord for a cool-headed wife who deftly worked with the schools to resolve this while I sat seething with anger on the sidelines.

So, the advice here would be to have someone with a cool head manage the situation if you’re unable to. Second, since education, or lack thereof, is often at the root, I’d point those involved to Philip Herbst excellent, “The Color of Words,” a book of 851 terms which include slurs used to disparage nearly every ethnic group in U.S. society, ethnic euphemisms and code words, and vogue or disputed terms heard in ongoing multicultural debates. In addition to providing known etymology and usage, entries explore how meaning varies by social context or circumstance.

The hope is that the N-Word will one day disappear into history, including its use as a term of endearment and in musical lyrics.

Terry Howard

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