The first time someone called me the N-word, I was about 10 years old, and my friends and I were at Paragon Park in Boston. The roller coaster operator took one look at my five friends and me and proclaimed loudly, “Hey, it must be watermelon day! Look at all these little [N-words] here!”
There was a kid with us named Frank, who was about 11. Frank got so mad that he tried to fight the ride operator, and another adult had to come and pull him off. I had no idea why Frank was so furious. I had never heard that word, and I didn’t know why watermelons would make anyone angry. When I told my mother what happened, she got angry too and then calmed down long enough to explain.
“That man who said those things is what they call a racist,” she said. “It means he doesn’t care for us Black people. It’s better to stay away from people like that.”
When my son Miles is 11, we place him in a new school where he is one of three Black kids in his class. About three months into the school year, the principal calls me right before pick-up to tell me that someone had posted something offensive about Miles on Instagram. The post had been taken down, Principal Webster says, and the boy who posted it had been suspended.
“What was it?” I say, bracing myself.
I can hear the tick of the air conditioner in the background as Webster shifts in his chair. “Um, I think perhaps it’s better if I show you when you get here.”
I arrive at the school 20 minutes later to find an anxious Miles in the waiting area outside Mr. Webster’s office.
“Mom!” he says, hopping out of his chair and straight-arming me to keep me from going in so quickly. “Please don’t get Mike in trouble. He didn’t mean anything, he doesn’t know. We all talk like that, it’s not a big deal.”
Mike! That short, blond kid who I’d caught in our bedroom during Miles’ birthday party. I should have known …
I kiss Miles on the forehead and look him in the eye.
“Are you all right?”
I’m trying to keep my voice steady, but my heart is beating faster now as my face starts to flush.
“He wrote it the ‘A-H’ way, Mom, not the ‘E-R’ way, so he said it was OK.”
I feel my throat tighten, and I clench my hands into fists by my side.
No, this little boy did not …
Mr. Webster is tall and white with kind brown eyes. He opens his office door and sheepishly asks me to come inside, motioning to Miles that he can stay seated in the waiting area.
“May I please see the post?” I stand directly behind him as he fumbles with the iPad on his desk.
The post is a picture of Miles from the day before, eating a Subway sandwich with mayonnaise smeared across his mouth. Miles is looking toward the camera but not at it. It is clear that he is not posing for the picture.
The caption underneath reads, “Eat That Sandwich N***ah.”
All at once, despite the air conditioner, the room gets oppressively hot. Blood fills my ears, and then suddenly, I can’t feel my feet.
I might be going to jail today …
Mike’s mom Elsa calls me soon after we got home and asks if she can please bring Mike over to apologize to us.
“I’m so sorry about all of this,” Elsa’s voice is trembling as she speaks. “We raised Mike not to see color.”
“And that,” I tell her, “is precisely the problem.”
When a white person tells me things like, “I don’t even think of you as Black” or “I really don’t see color,” there is always a nefarious undercurrent that makes my skin crawl. The subtext feels like, “I’d rather not have to think of you as Black” or “It’s easier for me to like you if I don’t see your color.”
My kids had food allergies and learning differences that required both occupational and educational therapies when they were little. But before I could concentrate on making their preschool peanut-free, or advocating for the therapeutic services that were needed, I had to advocate for them to be seen as young Black boys.
I needed to know that their teachers would see their color, that they would talk about what it means to be Black in America. When Miles was 10, I had to actively push for him to have a Black classmate. Can you imagine if it were the other way around?
Race is something I have to think about every day. I was furious at Elsa for not having to ever consider anything beyond whether Mike had the right math tutor or whether he started in basketball.
I accept Mike’s thin apology when they arrive and tell him to sit in the dining room while I speak to his mother in the kitchen. Elsa’s large blue eyes seem unnaturally wide, and I notice that she is sitting on the edge of the chair, as though she might need to make a quick getaway.
“So, what can I do?” Her eyes are wide and glistening with tears. “I want to do better. I’d like to teach him to do better.”
There is a bitter taste in the back of my throat. I am still wounded and inwardly fuming at Mike for trying to humiliate my son. I am resentful at Elsa for her privilege as a white woman with a white child. I know that it is not my job to educate her about Black America, but here she is asking for my help. I clasp my hands under the table and examine my cuticles before responding.
“You’ve got to commit to learning some inconvenient truths,” I say. “And then you’ve got to teach them to him.”
Talking about racism and privilege makes white people really uncomfortable. Most white parents would rather give their kids a “we are the world” picture of America than tell the truth. And the truth is that America has an ugly, painful, and violent history with race, starting with the genocide of America’s indigenous population. Then the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans who were raped; separated from their families, language and culture; and made to construct buildings and work fields. We can’t leave out the Japanese internment camps or the horrific prejudice that Hispanic people still face while trying to assimilate into American culture. Then there’s the Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, who endure micro and macro aggressions on the daily.
The truth is lynchings and Jim Crow. That America has two criminal structures: a legal system for Black Americans and a justice system for white Americans. That Black people were denied education, and beaten or killed when we were caught with books. How Article 1, Section 2 of our Constitution declared that Black people weren’t whole people. How the electoral college was formed with the idea that we only counted as three-fifths of a person.
And speaking of voting: that voter suppression is still alive and well today. That we have more Black men in prison now than in college. How Blacks weren’t allowed to own property until recently in our history. That medical experiments were performed on us, and left long-term mental and physical damage. And don’t get me started on police brutality or we’ll be here all day.
To teach your children not to “see color” is to teach them not to see reality.
I know what it’s like to want to protect your child’s innocence. I don’t want Miles to have to brace for the worst every time he encounters a new white person, or be scared of the police. But I don’t have a choice but to teach my children about racism. Mike’s parents probably didn’t teach him that word, but someone did. Someone taught Mike to use the N-word, and because he didn’t have conversations at home that countered what he was hearing, he figured it was OK. To be silent when it comes to racism is to be complicit.
“Look,” I tell Elsa. “No one really taught me about these things either. I’m Black, and I still had to learn about racism the hard way. But you can do better, like you said. You can make sure that your son understands that despite all of the evolved and well-intentioned people here, we still live in a racist country. You can explain to him the pain that bigotry and prejudice can cause.”
I put my hands on top of Elsa’s, and she looks startled. Her hands are cold and clammy; I pull mine gently away.
“And let me tell you. You might want for this moment to be your last wake up call,” I continue. “Because the truth of the matter is that the next parent of a Black kid that is called the N-word by your son might not be so kind as to invite you into their home and give you a history lesson.”