By Guest Contributor Liz Dwyer, cross-posted from Los Angelista
“Why’d you give that n***** your eraser?”
I send my two sons to school to learn, not so that they can be called racial slurs. But on Wednesday, a boy in 10-year-old Mr. O’s fifth grade class decided to make sure that the classroom was an extra welcoming learning environment. He posed the above question to another student, after that kid decided to give my son an eraser.
My son told me about it when I went to pick him up from his after school program and of course I was angry and upset, but I also felt numb. I am the mother of two black males in the United States. That means this is not the first time my boys have been called a racial slur.
I could write about how we are not post-racial and this is exhibit A of why I believe that racism is still America’s most vital and challenging issue. But it came to me that there’s something powerful about letting children–the most innocent of us all–share what it feels like to be called the n-word in class.
Last night I asked the boys if they’d like to talk about the racial slurs they’ve been called, and how it makes them feel. They were excited to share–we all know it’s cathartic to be able to share something painful that’s happened–and I’m glad that they know that they don’t have to keep the racism they face a secret or act like it’s not a big deal–or that it’s something they have to be ashamed of.
I filmed this interview with my boys before they went to sleep and in it Mr. T, my eight-year-old details being called an African bitch at school, and he talks about the first time he remembers being called the n-word. Mr. O talked about this most recent incident in his school, and then both boys talked about how it feels to know that when kids say these things, you still have to be in the classroom with them and what they think schools should do.
I have cried every time I watch the six minutes of this clip. It hurts like nothing else to know that children think it’s OK to call other children dehumanizing names that are steeped in the sickness of this nation’s racism.
(Editor’s note: a transcript of the video is under the cut – Arturo)
Mr. T (left): I would like to talk about racism. Kids have called me the n-word three times and for all those three times, they didn’t have a good reason. And, it’s racist for someone to call me that because the n-word is a racist word for black people and I’ve been called an African b-word once. What I told the kid the next day who called me that is, just because I’m black doesn’t mean I’m African. Because if I was African I’d be coming from Africa, and I don’t come from Africa. So that doesn’t make me African, and so that didn’t make sense for him to call me an African b-word. Anyway, it still would’ve been offensive if he just called me the b-word. Kids have spit in my face twice, and I didn’t like either of those, because it was just gross, and I hated it.
Mr. O: Hi, my name is Mr. O. About two days ago in my classroom – I’m in the fifth grade, and my teacher is a black male, so -
Mr. T: Mine too.
Mr. O: So it turns out a kid called me the n-word in class today. So I told my teacher who’s a black male, so it offended him very easily, too. He was born in the time when racism was still really active, so he was really mad with the kid, so the kid got suspended. But I didn’t like being called that, because it’s just not cool, you know?
Liz: Why isn’t it cool? Why do you think that kid called you that?
Mr. O: I’m not sure.
Mr. T: I think he called him that because basically he doesn’t know how offensive it can be to a black person. And he just thought that maybe it would be like a joke and he wouldn’t tell and no one would care, but that isn’t true. Because if it’s racist, everyone’s gonna wanna care about it, ’cause racism is a bad thing, and no one should ever want it.
Liz: What do you guys think would help kids not call each other the n-word or other names?
Mr. O: It could come from their parents, so their parents maybe could stop acting like that around their kids.
Mr. T: Maybe they could stop watching movies with the n-word. Like, one movie with the n-word is Malcolm X. In that movie they say the n-word a lot.
Liz: What about … How does it make you feel, when you’re at school to learn, and you know that kids at school are calling you these names, and you still have to be in class with them?
Mr. T: It just feels like you wish you were in another class and that you never met this kid, or that you never came to this school. The first time I ever got called the n-word was when I was five, I think. I was at the park and this kid just walked up to me and called me the n-word for no reason. At first I didn’t know what the n-word was, but then I asked mom, and she told me, and I felt really sad that he called me that. And I’ve also been called the a-word once.
Liz (to Mr. O): How do you feel? Like, this kid’s gonna come back from being suspended and you still have to be in the [same] room. Do you think that that being suspended is gonna change his attitude any?
Mr. O: No.
Liz: What do you think would change his attitude?
Mr. T: If a person could have a talk with his parents, maybe.
Mr. O: Saying that it could affect his grade, maybe. And communication with other students.
Liz: Is there anything that you think schools should be doing to help students not be racist against each other?
Mr. T: They can make a festival for all the black heroes, maybe?
Liz: That’s a good idea. (To Mr. O) What were you gonna say?
Mr. O: I think the schools can do all that they can to help, but it’s mainly the kid who has to stop doing it himself or herself. Because the schools can do all that they can, but that still might not affect that kid. But the kid has to tell himself that it’s not okay.
Liz: Is there anything else you guys would like to say about this? Do you worry it’s gonna happen again?
Mr. T: Yes. Because I’ve already been called that so many times that I never want it to happen again, or anything like what I just talked about to happen again.
Mr. O: I hope it’s not gonna happen again, because a lot of the kids in my classroom are my friends.
Liz: Well thank you so much for telling us how you guys feel and sharing your experiences.