Last week I was invited to a small, private school to talk about use of the N-Word among the 8th graders. I was not surprised this has become a topic for school administrators. My son is an 8th grader at a large diverse, public school and he and his friends confirmed that it’s becoming “normal” to hear kids use the word but that “it doesn’t mean what it used to mean.”
I want kids to understand the implication of their choices and to understand why it isn’t okay to be casual about a word that inflicts pain on many people.
Whenever I teach, it helps me to first think about where my students are coming from. Here are 3 reasons the average 13-year-old might make this mistake:
Casual and friendly usage of the word by celebrities both black and white sends a mixed message to kids. In their minds, everyone is saying it. What was once the taboo territory of rebellious black rap groups of the 80s and 90s is now crossed over by the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow on Twitter and Larry Wilmore at the White House Correspondent’s dinner. The lines have been blurred. No wonder kids are confused about what’s okay.
If you’re 13-years-old you have a short memory. Adults have a much closer relationship with people and events tied to the civil rights era. But for middle schooler’s today, they mean it when they say “it’s not like that anymore” and there is a sense of pride that comes with that. They defiantly claim to have “fixed” the problems we, in our infinite stupidity, couldn’t. They lack a deeper historical context to realize just how bad it was and just how bad systemic racism STILL is. Adding to a lack of historical context, most white parents don’t talk to their kids about race. They fear putting new problems on the radar for their kids, or they think talking about race makes the problem worse, when in fact the idea of being “color-blind” contributes to gaps in understanding.
It is the job of middle schoolers to rebel. As they develop their unique identities and values, they try on lots of personas. The allure of doing something taboo, appearing rebellious, and giving the proverbial middle finger to the establishment is strong for kids in middle school.
These don’t make it right, but they help me know where middle schoolers are coming from so I can get them where they need to be.
My workshop The Evolution Of A Word is a 90-minute look at historical context – from redlining, to the civil rights movement, to Straight Outta Compton, to reactions to our first black president – we examine how the word has changed and how it hasn’t. And we cover cultural appropriation through an approach that makes sense to skeptical kids. During the workshop, the kids interact with ideas and each other through conversations that open their minds and hearts to the experiences of people who don’t look like them.
If your school is interested in this workshop, please complete the speaker inquiry sheet on my website.