Friday, June 18, 2010

The "N Word"

My Dad is a man of few words. Literally - he hardly ever talks. [He assures me I am really his daughter though; DNA is complicated, I guess.]

He was a single dad; he raised me on his own, with help here and there from some awesome women. I would say, and he would probably agree, that he practiced a Mr. Miyagi style of parenting. He taught; but I rarely realized I was learning.

When I was about 8, I had an after-school babysitter who I did not particularly like. She had a sister who I was even less fond of. One day, that sister was yelling at two complete strangers, who happened to be African-American, and referred to them as, "n------."

Later that week, I was watching something on TV with my father, and a woman used the word "negro." I remember looking at my Dad and innocently saying, "I thought it was pronounced..." and then I said "the n-word."

My Dad, who never has an opinion, turned to me with such a hateful look and said, "That is not the right word. That's an awful word. Don't you ever use that word again."

I didn't understand why, but his point was clear: Don't use the word. Not too many years later (maybe two?) my Dad learned that the book "To Kill a Mockingbird" was banned from my school library. So, he bought me a copy and told me to get reading.

I love that book; it's my all-time favorite. I learned a lot - including what "the n-word" had come to mean in our culture, and why my Dad was so adamant that I never use it. So I never have.

I've heard it since. I heard my Grandmother (Dad's mom) use it, and my uncle (Dad's brother) has used it more than once over the years. I've also heard it in songs and in jokes, to which I stop listening and laughing, and won't repeat. I've read it in books, and one time got in trouble at school for refusing to repeat the word while I was reading out loud in class.

I've been told that I should lighten up. That in certain contexts and in certain company, that word is fine. If no one is around to whom it might be directed, it is not even offensive; sometimes, even necessary and funny.

I disagree.

I know the actual definition has nothing to do with race. But that word has been used in a hateful way for so long that, to me, it just sounds like hate. It sounds like a reminder that there have been times and places (and sometimes still are) where treating people with hatred and disrespect was acceptable, for no other reason than their looks.

I don't understand that. I don't think its funny. I do think that anyone who has ever been treated badly should take offense at the idea that it's ever acceptable. That word, and it's connotation, should offend everyone, as far as I'm concerned.

My Dad meant to teach me to never use that word; but I learned so much more. I learned to listen to what others have to say, and to observe and learn before passing judgement. I learned to anticipate how someone might feel or react in a certain situation.

I also learned that people won't always agree - and that's okay. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. So I don't always correct people when they make comments that I think are out of line. It's not my place to judge; that would go against the lesson. It is my place to make sure that I don't participate in hurtful behavior; and if others consider me harsh, judgemental or boring because of that, then I'm sorry.

I'm not perfect. I'm sure I've laughed at things that others might consider offensive. I have certainly made fun of people (I particulary like to laugh at fashion felonies, and I correct spelling and grammar errors, even if only mentally). I can be spoiled, I can be annoying, and I can definitely be high-maintenance.

But one thing I can't do is disappoint my Dad.

1 comment:

  1. Me too, only I would read it aloud in class. That's different. But all the rest of that :)