It happened. My kids were introduced for the first time to the “N” word.
To my knowledge only white Jewish kids go to their day camp, and I have no idea how or why the word was uttered, then passed around like forbidden cigarettes, each kid trying the poison out on his or her tongue. But at home, my son asked me if I knew the “bad word – ‘Ni—ck’…”
I had a feeling he meant something else.
“No,” I said. “I don’t know the bad word ‘Nick.’”
“Ni-G” he corrected himself. Then waited a beat. Then added, “er”.
My kids looked at me with wide eyes – they had absolutely no clue what the word meant, but they somehow did know that it was a ‘forbidden’ and ‘bad’ word. They quickly admitted that at camp that day, Yehuda had said the word (once) after he learned it, but Racheli had not said it.
What did it mean? they wanted to know.
Holy unpreparedness, Batman!
I did my best. I told them my heart broke to think of anyone using that word, and that my heart broke to think that they would ever use that word or allow someone else to say that word in front of them. This signaled to the kids that the subject was as serious as it gets, because in our house we only use the concept of something “breaking our heart” if it is the absolute worst of the worst.
Then I explained how not too long ago, white-skinned people went to Africa and “stole babies and took people with black skin and kidnapped them” – in truth, I’m not sure if babies were taken, but I wanted to drive home my point and I knew my kids would immediately connect to the helplessness of a baby – “and brought them to America and made them slaves, treating them terribly – worse than animals – and that those same white people called the black-skinned slaves that ‘N’ word.”
I painted my two older kids a brief but vivid picture of why the N word should never be used and I believe I properly transmitted my horror.
I finished my short tirade with the reminder that they must never say the N word, they must tell anyone who uses it in front of them that it is never appropriate to use it, and that they must always remember that their beloved uncle and cousins have black skin and so this is not just random people we are talking about standing up for, it’s also their family, their flesh and blood.
Then my son held out his arm and said to me:
“I have black skin, right, Ima? You have white skin and I have black skin?”
And then my heart really did almost break – or rather, melt. Because they are so innocent.
I’ve noticed before, in stores, my daughters will often automatically choose the ‘black’ baby doll before they migrate to a lighter-skinned one. Esther once identified herself with a black girl cartoon character on TV (Super Why). And there was that one summer when Racheli got very tan and fell asleep on our couch, during a visit by my sister and her “light skinned black” infant son (my sister’s husband is a very dark-skinned African-Cuban man), and Yehuda stared at the face-down body of his sleeping sister and asked me “How did the baby grow so big??!”
He thought Racheli was his little cousin. And I could see why, immediately, because Racheli tans like her father.
Their father – my husband – is ‘dark skinned’ in the sense that he gets super tan in the summer. And my kids are well aware that they inherited his beautifully tanning skin, versus their mother’s burn-friendly shade, because I mention it after most beach days.
“You have darker skin than me,” I answered slowly. “And your dad’s parents are from Africa – well, Morocco is in northern Africa…” Good God where was I going with this?
“… but you’re not considered ‘Black.’”
“No, people would not say you were black.”
Two sets of giant, curious eyes trained their questioning looks on me.
“So what color am I?”
“You would be considered white.”
What I want to write is this: What a fucked up world we live in.
But as I write that, just now, I immediately think: maybe yes, maybe no… but really what it is, is nuanced. Which is okay. Just not so easy to explain to a 6 & 8 year old…
Sheva (BatSheva Vaknin)