The Day My Son Used a Racial Slur

It started out as a normal afternoon. All the kids were getting home from school, and my 7-year-old son was horsing around with his younger sister. They were having fun, laughing and playing, and everything was fine. I was changing a diaper, only half paying attention, when it happened. My son said something that made my blood run cold, my heart stop. My first grader had just used a racial slur.

Even just thinking about it later makes my heart race and my throat close up. He clearly didn’t know what it meant; he had called his sister a [racial slur], which I have no doubt he was clueless about. I stopped what we were all doing and began to question him. “What did you just say?” I asked, and he repeated it. Maybe he was trying to say a different word, I reasoned; after all, he tends to repeat things he hears on TV all the time, usually silly words. He ran around calling his sisters “bricks” for weeks after hearing it on DC Superhero Girls. This couldn’t have been what I thought it was, right? So I asked him to repeat it again, slowly this time, and he carefully enunciated each syllable, leaving no doubt in my mind what he had said.

I knew I had to tread lightly here. “Where did you hear that word?” I asked him carefully. “From a friend at school,” he answered innocently. “He says it all the time.” I felt sick for a moment but took a deep breath and moved on. “Okay, sweetheart? I need you to listen to me,” I began. “We do not use that word. Ever. Do you understand?” He nodded, and then after a minute, began to cry; he thought he was in trouble, and my heart broke a little. I reassured him that I wasn’t angry at him — how could he have any idea what a racist slur was? — and just reiterated that I wanted to make sure he knew we never, ever say that word. But this was clearly just the beginning of the issue.

I felt fairly confident that his friend wasn’t knowingly running around making racial slurs, either; these were children, after all. None of them likely knew what the word meant, or so I hoped. But it forced me to confront the reality of raising children in a world where racism is still an issue. Our country is more divided than ever, and as the mother to white children, I don’t want to raise them to further contribute to any hatred or division. But what happened made me realize that I had not been doing enough.

My kids have gone to schools that I love, in large part because of their diversity. Their schools have had kids of all different races and abilities attending, so my kids and the kids that attend are around kids of various ethnicities, as well as kids with different disabilities, and I thought to myself how great it was. This is how we defeat racism and ableism, I told myself, by raising kids to be around people different from them. But that was naive. It’s good, of course, to go to diverse schools, but it’s not enough.

There’s an unpleasant reality that none of us really want to face, but we have to. Not talking about race, thinking we can raise our kids in a “colorblind” society, does not work. That just allows the negative attitudes that are inherent in children from their youngest ages to continue to grow. As difficult as these conversations about race are to have, we, as parents, have to have them. We have to explain what racism is to our kids. We have to explain how certain people are dehumanized just because of the color of their skin. We have to teach them to be better than we were.

So after the rest of my kids had gone to bed, I took my son aside and we had a difficult conversation that I tried to keep age-appropriate. I was nervous and didn’t want to do it, at all, but I realized that I had to. I tried to explain what racism is in a way a child’s mind could understand. I didn’t explain things like slavery and the Holocaust to him just yet, but eventually, I will. I don’t know if it was the best way to handle the topic, but I do know I have to try. We all do. Because silence is the soil in which hatred grows the best.


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