Fourth Grade Race Relations

Gem of a paragraph on Slate.com recently. Prudie, Emily Yoffe, is Slate’s excellent, 21st Century, “Dear Abby”. The kid, the mom’s reaction, the whole probable scene cracked me up.

After my chuckle, I thought I’d give a response a go without looking at Prudie’s reply until afterwards. How hard can it be, right?

Compare and contrast the pro’s response and the amateur’s.

Dear Prudie,
I have a fifth-grade son who is white and plays basketball on a mostly black team. He has made friends with many of his black teammates and hangs out with them a lot. I’m happy that he’s so colorblind, but then I heard him call his new friends “my niggas.” I was horrified and immediately talked to him about it. He said that his black friends use the term all the time and told him it was OK for him to use it with them, too. He said that he understood the history of the word and knows that it can be hateful when used wrongly. My son clearly isn’t intolerant, but he could get in a lot of trouble throwing that word around. I don’t even know if it’s OK for a white kid with black friends to use that word if they all do, and no one means it in a bad way. I usually feel confident guiding my son, but on this one I have no idea what to tell him.—Stumped

Dear Stumped, Tell your son your glad he’s friends with his teammates and encourage their burgeoning friendships. Recognize though, as a 10 year-old, your son’s knowledge of the word is most likely limited. The same is probably true for his teammates. Explain to him that as they get older they will probably take more pride in their blackness and feel a greater sense of ethnic kinship. Help him understand that at some point they will most likely feel differently about any whites, even understanding teammates, using “niggas”. Also point out that people who overhear him use the term may not be nearly as open and understanding. Again, tell him to enjoy and build on their friendships, but to drop the term out of respect for their particular history. Also remind him to pass first and shoot second.—Ron

Dear Stumped, If only our 10-year-olds could stay so innocently well-intentioned. Unfortunately, even though you’ve had one conversation about this, and your son knows some of the history of this word, you have to revisit this so that your boy doesn’t find himself the subject of a complaint and the object lesson in a lecture at a school assembly. Perhaps when he was tiny you had some comic, endearing names for your son such as Mr. Stinkbottom or Sir Droolsalot. (If not, pretend you did.) You can tell him that within families people can call each other things that might be insulting if said to an outsider, but among relatives it’s done with a tone of teasing affection. That’s what’s going on with his friends on the team. Yes, the whole team is a kind of family, but for many people their ethnic or racial group also has the feel of a family. Because of that, there are things that the black players can call each other but which sound very different coming from his mouth. You can say you know his teammates have encouraged him to say it, but if a teacher, parent, or coach heard him, it’s likely that person wouldn’t understand. It’s possible that a parent of his teammate could be offended and report his remark, no matter how affectionately it was said. Say you know this doesn’t seem fair, but the history of this word still has the power to cause great pain. So as a sign of respect to those who might be hurt by it, he needs to understand that his friends can use the phrase with him, but he must refrain from returning it.—Prudie

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