The N-word and my daughter
I woke up this morning thinking about what it means to raise race conscious children, and how some of us have no choice. I am sure this is on my mind heavily because I am being allowed to read my middle daughter’s college essay today after a couple of months of her agonizing over it.
Georgia, who is now applying to colleges and will have applications due within the next few weeks, chose to write about being called the N-word in third grade. I cannot say exactly how this incident continues to resonate with her now. It is not something that makes her stir in the night; in fact, the classmates responsible for the incident continue to be among Georgia’s friends now at school. The fact that Georgia can recall so vividly what happened and how she felt, and that the subject continues to be one that poses a dilemma for her is significant.
It happened in third grade with the introduction of an email address for Georgia to communicate with her family members who lived far away. She would write back and forth with her grandparents from North Carolina and Virginia, and with a great aunt from California. Georgia does not remember when she began sharing this address with her classmates, but she and I are both clear about the evening that she read a short message from two of them all in caps, that declared she was a nigger.
Georgia had read the email alone in her room, and I wasn’t there to see her first reaction. What I remember is Georgia, usually quick witted and sure of herself, standing at the top of the stairs to her bedroom, looking very scared and telling me that something was wrong and that she had gotten a scary email and wasn’t sure what to do.
I think my husband and I did all the right things. We dropped everything, first calmed Georgia, read the email together, and explained how sometimes messages got scrambled or came from someone trying to pose as someone else. I remember telling her that we would figure out why such an email would be sent to her from her friend’s address. We were clear that this was not a joke, and that we would work with her school and with the parents of the kids involved to settle the matter.
I remember Georgia pausing tearfully, I think she had pajamas on, blue satiny ones that hung a bit on her because they were hand-me-downs from her bigger sister. She looked up from the email message and wanted to know what a nigger was. She said she knew it was a bad word, but did not understand why it was used in reference to her.
My husband and I took a deep breath, and I tried my best to check the anger that hit me like a ton of bricks. I was all at once furious. Racism had crept into into my eight year old’s world, and I had had no control over protecting her from it.
I spoke first and said as simply as I could: “The N-word is a terrible, horrible name used against Black people. It is a powerful insult meant to treat Black people as less than human.”
I remember trying to tie this treatment to what Georgia had already learned from a school unit about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks…I did not have a lot of good examples from her own schooling to pull from, and this too made me angry and sad. Had I not prepared my child enough? I felt myself fumbling through and hot under the collar. I had a million thoughts run through my mind in that two-minute moment about whether we had chosen the right school, the right neighborhood, the right life for our children, so they could be strong and whole.
Had I talked enough about race? Had I surrounded Georgia enough with positive messages about who she is racially?
With the help of the school administration and the parents of the children involved, we learned that during a play-date, the children who wrote the message, Georgia’s friends, thought it would be funny to send a scary email. I don’t care to think about how and why calling my daughter a nigger ended up being the chosen words for this “prank.” The two children responsible each blamed the other, and we never did learn the truth about how the idea originated. I am sure that is not important for us to know.
“What did this incident teach you?” I prompted Georgia, as she struggled to write her college essay.
“I don’t know,” she answered for weeks before she finally wrote about the incident as a beginning of her own racial identity development.
“I always thought of myself as just like everyone else…like I fit in,” Georgia wrote, “I remember going back to school after reading that email feeling like I didn’t fit in anymore.”
In the seven months until Georgia walks across the graduation stage with this classmate who will have also accompanied Georgia on her senior spring break trip, maybe Georgia herself will finally have the will to talk about this incident again with her friend. I know that Georgia is stronger for having had to process this.
I hope this prepares her better for an world where racism is a fact of life that she will need to know in order to navigate through college and her adult life successfully.
Martha Haakmat is a Black woman, who blissfully just turned 50 and is celebrating 28 years of teaching and leading in New York City independent schools. Currently the Head of School at the Brooklyn Heights Montessori School serving children from twos through 8th grade, Martha has been a lower, middle, and upper school educator and has held administrative positions such as Diversity Director and Middle School Head. Martha has served as an independent school trustee and has been a member of various committees for the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) and the New York State Association of Independent Schools (NYSAIS). She was also the founder and director of Educators for Growth and Empowerment (EDGE), a diversity consulting team that presented in schools and conferences nationwide. Martha is married to Steve, a White man and has three, bi-racial daughters who are now 20, 17, and 13 years old.