Race Matters: When A Child You Love Is Called a Racial Slur | Cup of Jo

Race Matters: When A Child You Love Is Called a Racial Slur | Cup of Jo

Race Matters: When A Child You Love Is Called a Racial Slur | Cup of Jo

When my goddaughter was recently called the N-word at school – by a fellow third grader — I was heartbroken but not surprised. It’s a terrible rite of passage for so many Black kids and the incident set off painful recollections of “the first time” in my group chats.

“For me, it happened in kindergarten aftercare. This little girl with pigtails actually grinned as she said it.”

“Every year, like clockwork, someone on the playground called me that.”

“We’d just won a middle school baseball game against these white boys, and they screamed it as we were walking to our bus.”

These experiences left lasting scars stretching on to middle-age, which is part of what made what happened to my goddaughter so devastating — the understanding of just how this moment would mark her. The white kid who threw the ugly slur at her will likely forget this incident or never fully understand its impact. But for Black kids, there’s no such innocence. For them, it’s a formative moment, the gateway to a realization that’s especially difficult for young minds to process: that there is a racial hierarchy and that racism can be weaponized against them in a deeply personal way. Even if they can’t quite grasp why the word itself has so much power, kids (both Black and white) understand that it does.

This crucible, then, is a devastating rite of passage for Black parents — their first reminder that they can’t protect their children from these brutal realities and the start of many conversations to try to help kids reckon with the excruciating questions at the heart of racism through a child’s lens: But why do people think Black people are bad? Why do they think less of me? Is there something wrong with me? Imagine what it’s like to register that people don’t like you for how you look, but you have no idea why or what you could do differently.

Parents whose children have to navigate this incomprehensible conundrum bear an additional, stressful emotional burden. On top of school work and activities, they have to work overtime to help their kids build self-esteem to counteract the many messages — overt and implicit — that they’re inferior, wrong or bad. As if parenting isn’t already hard enough.

Perhaps the most disheartening part of all is that we so often pride ourselves on our progress, especially in the last few years, with all the listening and learning, and yet. Here we are with the most blatant forms of racism being flung about — STILL — in our elementary school playgrounds in 2024.

Worse, racist taunts like this (along with anti-semitism and trans/queer bashing) are on the rise. I spoke with educator Tiffany Jewel, author of The Anti-Racist Kid, about why that is, what to do after these types of incidents and the need to keep reinvesting in anti-bias efforts in schools (and at home).

Tiffany theorizes that social media is partly to blame for the increase in hate speech amongst kids. She also suspects all the noise and attention around banning books by BIPOC or queer authors has inflamed this idea in kids that if something is wrong with those stories, something must be wrong with “those” people featured in or penning the books; otherwise, why would adults be so up in arms about it?

Kids, after all, as we all know, are quite impressionable. As recent research at MIT points out: they are unique in their capacity for social learning, imitating and absorbing what they observe and mimicking that behavior and those social cues. And this is certainly true when it comes to race and absorbing biases. This was born out in the famous “Doll Study” by husband and wife psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark. They surveyed children ages three though seven, asking which of two dolls — one white, one Black — they preferred. Invariably, the kids, both white and Black, picked the white doll, having already internalized the message that whiteness is preferable. These preschoolers were too young to comprehend racism, but they did understand, innately, white supremacy.

So, while you might not be spouting racial rhetoric in your home, your children still observe situations and pick up cues around that inform their developing world view — for example, seeing more Black than white people in subservient roles in your homes/communities, or picking up on the fact that brown kids are disciplined differently by teachers or that white kids get more positive attention. Or even watching how adults and educators react to situations like one child calling another the N-word.

Tiffany tells me that the risk in these scenarios is that adults or educators can tend to want to minimize what’s happened: “Their reaction might be, ‘We’re not gonna talk about this’ because they feel uncomfortable addressing it. It’s hard to talk with kids about identity, so adults may not know exactly what to do or say so they brush over it, which then sends a message to kids that it’s okay.”

While knowing precisely how to handle a situation may be difficult, and several factors may influence the approach and consequences, including the age of the child, whether it’s a one-time offense or a bullying situation, and the context of the incident, Tiffany stresses the importance of several steps:

First, of course, is to immediately and unequivocally call out and condemn the language or slur and offer comfort and support to the victim.“It’s vital to make the child understand that this is not something they have to deal with on their own,” says Tiffany. “There’s a whole team of adults here to support you and ensure that this doesn’t happen again.”

Next, have a conversation with caregivers of all the kids involved. Sometimes adults want to avoid this because it can be uncomfortable to call out a child’s bad behavior, especially around race when people can get defensive and angry and show age-old defensive outrage: “I have no idea where Johnny could have picked up those ideas.”

A better alternative is to see this as a learning opportunity for your child. Rather than doling out punishment, Tiffany recommends age-appropriate lessons about the history of slurs and racism and why it matters; for older kids, she suggests a research project into the topic. This is where caregivers come into the equation by proactively reinforcing anti-racist ideas at home and following up with their child about why what was said was so hurtful. It’s the responsibility of white parents to have those conversations, too. Black parents shouldn’t be the only ones helping their kids reckon with racism — that would reinforce the idea that it’s a problem only for Black people. Along those lines, white parents don’t have to wait to have anti-racist conversations with kids, or to expose their kids to stories of people of color through movies, books, etc., both as an ongoing means to counteract all the negative messages out there, but also by way of representation — sending a message that these stories and people matter, too.

It helps, too, if your school or sports team has concrete guidelines about hate speech and a clear understanding of the boundaries and consequences if they’re violated. It’s worth asking if your school has such a policy and working to develop one if they don’t. This is the kind of awareness and action that’s as imperative today as ever. Even as DEI efforts are under fire, anti-racist education remains vital and the only hope to break the cycle of prejudice in our country and protect children made vulnerable because of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender identity or sexual orientation.

“We want kids to love who they are,” Tiffany told me. “We want kids to be able to celebrate and honor differences. We want kids to understand that bias hurts and be able to see and call out injustice when it happens.” These aren’t just educational goals but lifelong goals. Human goals. It’s our job to help kids grow up with these values. So that, one day, we’ll save a generation of kids like my goddaughter from having to endure harmful, demeaning taunts.

Do you know how your school or organization has handled incidents of bias or hate speech? Maybe there are best practices we can share and learn about in the comments? This feels like timely discussion to have on Juneteenth.

Christine Pride is a writer, book editor and content consultant who lives in Harlem, New York. Her novel, You Were Always Mine, written with Jo Piazza, is out now.

P.S. More Race Matters columns, plus how to raise race-conscious children and three transgender kids share their stories.

(Photo by Ezequiel Giménez/Stocksy.)

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