My 11-Year-Old Got Called The N-Word. White Parents, Talk To Your Kids About Racism.

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.

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.



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