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A Letter to My Son’s School: Harmful Words


Dear Mr. Principal, Mrs. Guidance Counselor, Mrs. Teacher, and Madam Transportation Director,

Yesterday, my 4-year-old daughter was playing a video game, and asked her brother, Archoo, to help her with a difficult level. He was having some trouble, but I heard him say he was going to beat up the “niggers” and get through to the end of the level for her. Now, let me be clear about something up front. The game didn’t feature human characters of any shade; these were imaginary monster-type beings, and there was no explicit racial connotation in the use of the word in my son’s case. However, I was so dumbfounded that my innocent 6-year-old baby had even heard that word that I had to have him repeat it. Twice.

I asked him where he had learned it. He got very quiet because he was afraid that he was in trouble, but eventually, he told me he had heard it from another boy on the bus. Believe me, I understand that children can be loud on the bus. Our route is filled to the brim with kids; they sit three to a seat, and nearly half of the bus is filled on our stop. I get that the bus driver can’t possibly hear everything that every one of them says to another. However, I am pulling Archoo from the bus route. I can’t have him exposed to that sort of hateful language; I do not find it to be in his best interest to hear these things without context and without a grown-up to discourage it with education.

I am sending this email to so many recipients because I find it discouraging that the word could be uttered anywhere in the school and that nobody would respond to it with any amount of disgust, even the children. I have told my son that if he hears it again, he is to find a grown up right away, and I am sure that he will. I’m not entirely sure how you teach children about offensive/abusive words without arming them to the teeth with slurs, but perhaps this can be a learning opportunity for all of us as a school community to find a way to overcome this sort of occurrence. There are children of every shade and of many religions at School; I don’t want it to be a place where ANY such language is tolerated, let alone taught to the younger kids by the older ones. You would be receiving this email whether it had been the N-word or any other slur. I can’t imagine the backlash that would occur if Archoo used his new “vocabulary word” within ear-shot of Mrs. Teacher or one of the students of color in his class – but he didn’t know anything about the harm in using it until I tried, probably ineffectively at best, to impress it upon him last night.

I’m well aware that there is a subculture in the black community that uses the N-word openly and as some sort of affectionate term. I don’t at all share the views of these people; however, I’m also not naive. I never believed that being half-black myself, having a mixed-race family and raising my child to respect others regardless of their color, creed, orientation or status would completely shield him from words such as these. I knew he would hear them on the television, in pop music songs or on the street. I knew, one day, that we would have to talk about the N-word, the horrific connotations it carries, and the way it was used to denigrate an entire race of people. I just never imagined that he would be six when it happened and that he would hear it on the bus ride from school. My heart broke in half when I heard it from his tiny little mouth; I cried. I’m crying as I type this out. I just still can’t believe what he said.

I also have considered that this other child, who I am not really interested in naming because it’s quite possible he has no idea what he’s saying, either, had to have heard it somewhere. Maybe he heard it on the television, in pop music songs or on the street … maybe he learned it at home in a racist context, too. I can’t fathom or begin to guess how or why, but I don’t think punishment is necessarily the best course of action. I would err on the side of education were this a child in my care, just as I attempted with my own son.

Thank you for taking the time to read this email. I know that you strive, together, to make School a safe and welcoming place for our children. I feel you do a great job; you have responded with respect to my concerns in the past, and I know that you will treat this issue with an appropriate level of severity and look for ways to confront it.

– ilkaisha


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