My daughters have a favorite Queer Episode. It’s the one with Mama Tammye and her son, Myles. Mama Tammye is the kind of Christian woman I aspire to be — welcoming, affirming, grace-filled. Myles, her gay son, spends the episode grappling with the damage done by homophobic church-goers and the prejudices in his community. Their church’s homecoming celebration is coming up. Mama Tammye hopes Myles will come back to church even if it’s just for the Homecoming. Myles isn’t sure he can bear to return. I cry every time I watch it.
We turned it on again on Sunday. My eight year old, Viola, was on the floor, my eleven year old, Margaret, was perched on the couch with a book, Myles was on his front porch with Karamo talking about the difficulty of being a black gay man in his small Georgia town. He said that he was bullied as child for being gay and for being black. He said that people called him the n-word.
Viola is obsessed with cataloguing every bad word ever conceived and seemed to be hearing this detail for the first time. She flipped her head toward me,
“Mom, what’s the n-word? Is it a curse word?”
It’s a question I should have answered before she had to ask it. But I didn’t. We’ve read about slavery and talked about Jim Crow and found every picture book on the civil rights era. We’ve discussed that in every era anti-black sentiment has been found in every region of America. We’ve talked about how racism isn’t dead, that it still crawls in every corridor of our country. We’ve done some work, though of course not close to all of it.
But we’ve never, ever talked about n-word. I put it off. I could never find the words to describe the existence of such a word. My kids are white and so I could put it off. They didn’t have it hurled at them as they walked down the street. It was never muttered behind their backs in line at school. I was wrong to wait. And now there I was, on a Sunday night, watching Netflix, totally unprepared to explain the crushing weight of this six letter word. But it was time, past time really. I need my daughters to understand that systemic racism can turn words into horcruxes, that the n-word keeps past pain and prejudice present and throbbing. So I paused the show and took a deep breath.
“First of all, it’s not a curse word. Curse words are fine in lots of circumstances, especially when you’re older and know how to use them. The n-word is much worse than a curse word. The n-word is a dehumanizing word. It’s a word that has been used for years and years to try to strip the personhood from black people. It’s a word that was used as part of a large vocabulary created to justify racism and slavery. You know how bad slavery was, right?”
She nodded her head. We’ve read stories about black babies being sold out of their black mothers arms. I went on more forcefully,
“And then, even after slavery was over? It was a word that was used by people who didn’t believe black people should vote or own land or read good books or have good jobs or have rights or even eat sandwiches in the same restaurant as white people. It’s still used today. It’s an awful ugly word that people use to separate you from people you love like Norah.”,
And here she went from pained to horrified. Norah is black and she is Viola’s best friend. How could anyone want them to be apart? And much, much more importantly how could anyone look at Norah and want to use a word that hurt her?
“It’s a destroying word. Not a curse word. You know I don’t really care if you say shit, hell, ass, damn or fuck. But we will never, ever say the n-word.”
Margaret, who had been listening quietly and hates cursing looked flustered, “Mom! Please don’t curse either!”
Viola put her hand on her older sister’s shoulder and said, “This is a lifetime lesson. That’s why she’s talking that way.”
A lifetime lesson. How is it that we are so blessed with the clarity of children?
Both of my girls love Lizzo and wanted to know what to do about the N-words in her songs. So we talked about how she can say that word but we can’t, because when Lizzo says the n-word she is transforming it into something that doesn’t hurt. Since we’re not black we just aren’t able to do the same thing. The n-word is not a word we use but it’s also not a word that’s ours to redeem. This made perfect sense to both girls. Viola grinned, “Okay Mom! When I sing along to Truth Hurts, I’ll say the f-words but not the n-words.”
Kids are wise.
I asked them what they would do if they heard someone else say the n-word. Viola answered immediately, “I’ll tell them to shut up.” Margaret thought a long time and then said, “I’ll tell them to stop and then when they’ve stopped I’ll tell them what you told us.” Both were acceptable answers.
We hugged and turned Queer Eye back on. At the end of the episode, Myles decides to go to his church’s homecoming. The pews are full. He’s in the front row. Mama Tammye stands up to speak. Her speech is powerful, a proclamation that we are all loved.
Mama Tammye’s voice rises as she says,
“How can I say I love God but I cannot love the ones right there next to me? I would call myself a hypocrite.”
My daughters and I shouted “Amen!” at the TV.
A version of this essay first appeared on Meg Conley’s instagram.