Home > Learning, Parenting, Personal, Reflections, Writing > Skin color & the power of words

Skin color & the power of words

This post uses the n-word, spelled out for reasons explained within the post.

This time last week, I was anxious about posting my blog, “Our baby is going to experience racism someday.

Us and our baby

In addition to being deeply personal, it used a word I hate hearing, seeing or knowing exists. I used the word in quotation, but actually using it myself—within or outside of quotation—made me feel ashamed.

“I’ve been called a ‘nigger.’ Lots of times.”

I didn’t use the word lightly. Indeed, by the time I opened the question of its use to a small group of friends, I’d already discussed the matter at length with my honey (whose Yale degree is in American Studies, and who assessed my questions both personally and academically) and a friend whose vocal opposition to the word in any context meant I was surprised when he agreed I should use it as quoted.

In the end, something I agonized over received exactly zero comments. None.

I’m glad I used the word as spoken. I believe that using a euphemism such as “n-bomb” would have detracted from the shock of being confronted with hateful use of that hateful word today.

Despite the total lack of reader reaction to its use, I’m glad I agonized over it. It’s a word full of hate, and hateful history, and thus not one I feel should be used lightly.

By contrast, use of the words “black,” “brown” and “white” don’t faze me.

Anymore, that is.

They did four years ago.

I clearly recall Ba.D. asking me to describe one of my neighbors, in case he encountered the neighbor later. I faltered after I threw out a few descriptive words.  Should I mention his skin at all? Despite nervousness about doing so, I added, “Also, he had gorgeous latte-colored skin.”

“Thank you!” Ba.D. boomed victoriously. “Thank you for saying that!”

“Um?” I faltered. I didn’t know what response I’d expected, but that wasn’t it.

“Thank you for describing his skin color! You wouldn’t hesitate to say someone was ‘blond,’ or ‘short,’ right? So why withhold a piece of descriptive information that distinguishes one person from another? If you’ve got two short-haired guys wearing tweed and glasses standing side-by-side, does it really make more sense to start describing shoe color before skin color?”

My memory’s not good enough to recall what Ba.D. said to me about our weekend plans this morning, so you have my 100% guarantee the above quote isn’t verbatim. Yet this was its content, and it’s been content that’s impossible to forget. It’s been the subject of a lot of discussion and consideration since, and marked a turning point in how I thought about descriptions of skin color. As I wrote here last April:

Help [your kids] see, as you do, that color is descriptive, not determinative, guiding them not to be “color blind”–impossible for the categories kids sort the world into–but instead to be color impervious.

In the four years since I had the above conversation with Ba.D., hyperawareness of loose color-based descriptors and an aversion to their use has come to feel to me like another barrier between people. Touching, in passing, upon a superficial distinction between two people and giving it neither further thought nor weight emphasizes that it is merely that: a superficial distinction. Pretending there is no difference whatsoever, by contrast, serves only to emphasize the “white elephant” in the room about which we’re unwilling to speak, and thus perpetuate the idea that something is so important and so divisive that it must never be discussed. This is the heart of fear.

I don’t believe we’re defined by our skin, or that skin color provides any useful information whatsoever about a person’s heart, soul or proclivities. The only thing it tells me, in very broad strokes, is roughly how much melanin a person has.

In other words, it tells me very, very little.

In practical terms, it tells me just enough to let someone know, with one added, neutrally spoken word, to precisely which short-haired, tweed- and glasses-wearing dude I’m referring.

Using these words isn’t a problem to me anymore. It’s active avoidance of them that makes me uncomfortable now, reflecting as it seems to a conscious effort to not see something that is absolutely seen, and thus leading to questions not about what we see but about why we feel we must see it differently.

It’s not what we see that’s the problem. It’s what we ascribe to it.

So I’ll use those descriptors, and listen to the ones others use, or don’t. What I won’t use—without great care, consideration and a context that benefits by invoking them—are words like “the n-bomb,” which are by their very creation and use meant to describe not only a facet of someone’s appearance but imply unkindly (and incorrectly) who they are beneath their skin.

Words are powerful. This is true not only of the ones we use, but of the ones we avoid at all costs.

© 2012 Deborah Bryan. All rights reserved.
Duplication in whole or substantial portion is explicitly forbidden.

  1. April 4, 2012 at 7:36 pm

    You know, I have to say.. I realize that the word “nigger” is such a taboo word (even though black people use it amongst themselves frequently) and that even using it in writing can be difficult, but I honestly believe (if only in my mind) it does not describe a person of color – just like you said at the end there.

    Words are so powerful. They cannot be taken back, whether spoken or written.

    Great post.

  2. April 4, 2012 at 7:59 pm

    I grew up hearing that word used with rationalizations, as though that made it OK. My children will never hear such, so they will not need to decipher any meaning.

    And unless they’re going to pick someone up at the airport, they’ll never hear skin color used as a description.

    That is how we will transcend labels in this house.

    • April 4, 2012 at 9:18 pm

      Hear, hear. It’s heartening to imagine all the positive ripples this approach will have over the years and generations to come.

  3. April 4, 2012 at 8:02 pm

    Deborah, I read your post last week and meant to comment, thanking you for the brave and beautiful words. I didn’t and I regret adding to the no comments sinking heart. Thank you for upping the ante on truth-telling and “difficult” subjects we can avoid at our own risk. I admire that in you as a person, and a writer.

    • April 4, 2012 at 9:20 pm

      If it’s any consolation, it’s going to take me another month to catch up on the comments already left! I’m grateful for your words here.

  4. April 4, 2012 at 8:14 pm

    My husband and I had been to together for at least 9 years when I heard his father use that word. I was both shocked and horrified, but not silenced. I told, not asked, him to never use that word in my home, my presence, nor my child’s (I had only C then) presence again. It was a reflection of the environment he grew up in, though that did not justify his continued use of the word. Never in 26 years have I used my husband use that word, not that I would have tolerated it from him either.

    I love this: “Help [your kids] see, as you do, that color is descriptive, not determinative, guiding them not to be “color blind”–impossible for the categories kids sort the world into–but instead to be color impervious.”

    We have worked to raise our children to be “color impervious” and your post has given me so much more to think about. I will be sharing your post with them and using it as a springboard for a family dinner discussion.

    Thank you, Deb, for this.

    • April 4, 2012 at 9:26 pm

      I love that you spoke up. What you’ve described confirms this feeling of you I’ve built from many months of our blog conversations.

      Your comment reminds me of my own shock at a revelation related to the word. In one of my conversations with my mom early in my pregnancy, she told me about how the man I thought of as my grandpa used the word all the time in their conversations on his front porch. Sometimes I’ll put on his watch and feel remorse when I wonder if he’d have applied the label to my son, only to find some small peace in realizing he was a byproduct of a very different era. So much about him softened in his last few years, when he finally started not only accepting hugs but requesting them, that I wonder what else wouldn’t have softened with a few more years.

      Thank you, for your words here and elsewhere, which always give me so much food for heart and head.

  5. April 4, 2012 at 8:51 pm

    Nicely expressed. We can be so oversensitive sometimes that we tie ourselves in knots and avoid what’s normal in the first place. Thanks for sharing.

    • April 4, 2012 at 9:28 pm

      We can be so oversensitive sometimes that we tie ourselves in knots and avoid what’s normal in the first place.
      Ah! You say in a single, succinct sentence what it took me paragraphs to stumble my way into (somewhat) articulating!

      What you said. Exactly.

  6. April 4, 2012 at 9:12 pm

    I feel like I’ve come full circle on descriptions. I live in such a multicutural neighbourhood and city that I just mention people’s ethnicity now. I also describe my family that way as well (WASP, Filipino, Jamaican! Rocking it thank you very much!). It’s kind of who we are. I feel likie my husband’s family and my son’s birthfamily have really opened up that door, and I love the convos we have.

    • April 4, 2012 at 9:32 pm

      Ah! I wish I knew how to describe my ethnicity! I know there’s a bit of Scottish, even more Danish, and bunches of many-generations-past Welsh, but that still accounts for such a small portion of my ancestors.

      I, too, am grateful for the conversations opened to me over the past few years. The conversations with Ba.D.’s family have been a gift, as have been some surprising discussions with my family of choice. There’s so much good in open conversation, on all manner of things. 🙂

  7. April 4, 2012 at 9:15 pm

    More… at the same time, I’m not sure that my son has noticed that we all look different from one another yet so THAT will be interesting. My hope is that he’s loud and proud about it not living in a colourblind bubble. HOWEVER, my wish for him is that he grows up with a fusions, melange, mixup group of friends and colleagues who transcend their difference in favour of mutual interests, kindness, and all that good stuff..

    • April 4, 2012 at 9:35 pm

      This comment rings a distant bell from one of the articles I read early on in my pregnancy. I think it might be time to revisit them! I, too, often wonder what Li’l D sees; it’s clear that, regardless of what he sees now, what he takes away are the essential elements: fun and love. I hope that’s what he takes with him.

      I love your wish. I’d like to second it for my own son. It’ll be an adventure to see where they take us, eh?

  8. suzyplatt
    April 4, 2012 at 11:42 pm

    I have had racist remarks towards myself and I hate racism in any form, I am apparantly not “white” enough for some people! I have olive skin which gets very tanned in the summer, all my children have the same and were even born with a blue birthmark that runs in familys with asian or “coloured” blood in it! Fantastic post and sorry I missed your other one I am going to read it now!

    • April 6, 2012 at 6:13 pm

      Thank you, and a huge “ach!” at the whole concept of not being white enough! Words like those make my foot feel a little itchy for a target, an instinct I’m actively working to temper. Time and patience will win, I hope.

      • suzyplatt
        April 7, 2012 at 11:13 am

        I know that feeling well! I get it alot! Best thing is to ignore small minded people! x

  9. April 5, 2012 at 2:43 am

    Words are powerful. And sometimes they need to be used. So don’t worry, you use them in the best way possible!

  10. April 5, 2012 at 3:08 am

    I was raised to appreciate the differences between people, but without stigma or judgement, how sad it is, that so many were not. You raise good points, and I can think of nothing better for your son, to grow up around someone with such awareness and love.
    Now though – “Tag” http://thisisthecraftyone.wordpress.com/2012/04/05/tag-youre-it-2/

    • April 8, 2012 at 7:25 pm

      It is sad that many were not, but I’m heartened to think of all those making the change for their own kids! I’m also curious to see what this “tag” is about, a curiosity to be remedied after I post this comment.

  11. April 5, 2012 at 4:43 am

    I HATE when students greet each other by using the n-word. The historical origins as to WHY that word came into existence are pretty well documented. I know people saw, when you are part of a group, there are certain words you can say.

    This is one word I’d like to see disappear from the lexicon. Completely.

    But mocha-chocolate. Now that is delicious. 😉

    I think you didn’t get comments because you were quoting your husband who was telling you a truth about his life experience. People have called me “kike.” they have bought items at garage sales and bragged about “jewing down” the sellers. They were not making a larger point. They were just being ignorant. You, my friend, are never that.

    • April 8, 2012 at 7:30 pm

      Reading the middle portions of that last paragraph were painful. I like how you express their words in terms of ignorance. I always look for convoluted, long-winded answers, but really . . . in a single word, so much truth.

      Thank you so much for this awesome comment. ♥

  12. April 5, 2012 at 5:41 am

    Great point – calling someone brown/black/white is not in itself negative… that’s like saying that the fact that they are brown/black/white is a netative thing. I get frustrated when people try to describe a person to me… tall… brown hair… brown eyes… wearing clothing? congrats, you just described every single guy in the room except that short, blonde, blue eyed guy over on your left.

    • April 8, 2012 at 7:34 pm

      I just had to read this aloud to Ba.D., who chuckled along with me at your conclusion. (“wearing clothing? congrats”)

  13. April 5, 2012 at 6:34 am

    Bravo, Deb!! And thank you. You’re right that it is the elephant in the room; I find I’m often hesitant to use color to describe someone, when it really is the equivalent of ‘tall’ or ‘blonde.’ I wouldn’t hesitate to say someone was very pale or very tan. I think with the introduction of the politically correct term, African American, people became more nervous about saying black. To me, ‘African American’ calls attention to the description in an awkward way, just as avoiding it does. It makes more sense to me to just say, he’s white, he’s black, he’s Canadian, he’s Mexican, etc. But a lot of people (myself included) are so worried about offending someone, that it often seems better to avoid it altogether. I hope that changes (and I have hope that it will).

    • April 8, 2012 at 7:46 pm

      a lot of people (myself included) are so worried about offending someone
      I so relate! There were so many moments I stepped quietly away from descriptive words like that for fear of their impact. I’m glad I took the risk that one time, because it’s led to some amazing conversations and glimpses into different perspectives.

      As I type this, I’m encouraging Ba.D. to actually reply to a couple of these comments. I loved your comment, and so read it to him. He followed it up with, “Awesome! Also, FYI, here’s a brief political history of all of these different descriptors.” That’s where the academic background comes in!

      As far as the “African American” thing, I too feel that’s awkward. I’m not really “Danish American” or “Scottish American,” although my descendants were these things. I’m American. 🙂

  14. April 5, 2012 at 6:58 am

    “Also, he had gorgeous latte-colored skin.” (Well, now the coffee lover in me wants a latte! :)) Though your post is serious, this line caused me to laugh. I’ve always worried a great deal about being sensitive to others and I’ve faced the same conundrum in how to describe someone to someone else when they’re a different skin color than mine. (This is all probably stems from teaching elementary school and being terrified of offending anyone!) Thank you for reaffirming my feeling that including a person’s coloration in their description is not a negative thing! 🙂 This also made me think of a coversation that I overheard between my daughter and her housemate who’s from India and very dark-skinned. K was trying to describe which girl named Lauren (of the 3 Lauren’s in their class) had signed up for their study group. She was describing everything about her except for her skin color when her housemate finally laughingly said to her, “Do you mean the Lauren with brown skin? Because it’s ok to say that!”

    Thank you for writing this! 🙂

    • April 10, 2012 at 8:24 pm

      Your comment about laughing when you read this made me laughed. I hoped someone would have that response to it, because it’s something I chuckle at now! I recall so many conversations before it, where I took an extra fifteen steps in explanation because I was unnerved by the prospect of using the wrong single word.

      I’m so glad for the conversations Ba.D. and I have, and the ones that are carried out here! Also, for you.

  15. April 5, 2012 at 7:27 am

    Gosh, such an important insight–and, in fact, brilliant post! We need to notice both what we say and what we omit. You are so correct that never saying certain words is a fear-based behavior. Language has power–even the ability to exclude through our willingness to deny what describes. It makes people invisible. Removes face from race.

    • April 10, 2012 at 8:26 pm

      Thank you, Kathy! I can’t say it smarts to see the word “brilliant” affixed to something I’ve written, especially by a writer of your skill. (Lest you brush this off as me being facetious, let me reassure you I am not!)

      “It makes people invisible. Removes face from race.” So perfectly put! That’s exactly, precisely it.

  16. April 5, 2012 at 7:50 am

    This is so true and well written, Deb! We visited our daughter at U of Illinois the other night to see Celtic Women in concert (fab, by the way) and she described an exTREMEly uncomfortable English class she had just sat through. They are reading a book written by a black woman, in which most of the protagonists are black, and the topic was using the “n” word in literature. Another girl said this word is no worse or better than “kike” as Renee mentioned above, or other ethnic slurs. The discussion became very heated.

    Are there shades of gray in offensiveness (pun kind of intended)?

    Gwen, who is white, said she felt bad for the one, black girl in this class, who has the awkward and unasked-for task of having to “represent” on such topics, instead of just being another student.

    • April 10, 2012 at 8:34 pm

      I’ve thought about your question a lot since you’ve posted it. My answer is this: “Ummmmmmm?”

      Different parts of me have very different answers. I think I’d lean toward agreeing that they’re all borne of something very hateful and harsh, and so reflect the same hurtful ignorance that degrades the world. I respond to both words with the same grimace and wish the words would fall into the sea, taking the history of hate they reflect with them.

      So many questions, so few definitive answers!

      Like Gwen, I would’ve felt bad for the black girl in the class, being singled out and epitomized as if her opinion could possibly reflect thousands of other people’s. I get awkwarded out really fast, and even imagining this has me reaching for my awkward-deflector pillow-shield. (I’m not kidding about this pillow-shield. It’s an intrinsic part of my home movie-watching experience.)

  17. April 5, 2012 at 8:49 am

    being a middle-aged white woman, i tend to look at people of other ethnicities in the reverse, i think. i wonder what they think of me being white, and if they have been treated badly by other whites, do they pre-judge me on the basis of my skin color? something i need to work on, i think…

    • April 10, 2012 at 8:36 pm

      I often wonder the exact same thing, for what it’s worth. I’ve seen some negative behavior that’s made me wonder what that’s responding to. I don’t believe it’s acontextual; rather, I acknowledge I just can’t see the context.

      I wish I could see the definitive moments folks have experienced and understand how that shapes what they expect of me.

  18. April 5, 2012 at 11:39 am

    Great insights, here, Deb. I’m reminded that I always get backed up when referring to a black person as “black” to another black person. I simply can’t say “black,” because I would never describe anyone as “white.” For that reason, I always think the black person would take offense. I tend to bend over backward never to say anything that might offend someone, but then I feel foolish because I’m not speaking freely. But I guess what all of this really means is that I’m to conscious of skin color.

    • April 10, 2012 at 8:40 pm

      Thanks, Renee, for your comment’s opener and for the openness of the rest of it. It’s been in my mind a lot since I read it. The last sentence especially sticks with me, because it mirrors–except much more succinctly–trains of thought I get stuck on, most especially when idealist me comes head to head with realist me.

      I’d love to interview a group of people 100 years down the road and see how they discuss these subjects, and respond to the way we do. Interesting to imagine, that, if a little bit headache-inspiring . . .

  19. April 5, 2012 at 12:16 pm

    I remember, in the early days of AOL, when describing myself, I would always say “tall, white, with brown hair & hazel eyes.” And, every now & then, I’d be asked “why do you say you’re white?” and I’d respond “because you asked me what I looked like – skin color is a descriptive feature.” I do fear that there is a segment of the population who is so freaked out by skin color that they, simply, choose to ignore it . . . and that doesn’t send the right message, either. People are different shades – one shade isn’t any better than the other.

  20. Mary Lourcey Jones
    April 5, 2012 at 2:48 pm

    Ooh, I HATE that word, but I got why you used it and the context it was used in. I grew up hearing it, but never used it myself (and I’ve about gotten certain family members to quit using it in my presence). I do believe you are right about the avoidance of skin color to describe someone. Once again, a beatiful, thought provoking post.

    • April 10, 2012 at 8:43 pm

      I’m glad for how you started this comment, because I, too, hate it so much I hated the thought of having it be any portion of my blog! Still, I am glad I opted to keep it as spoken. It’s jarring to me to imagine people saying that to Ba.D. to this day.

      Thank you. ♥

  21. April 5, 2012 at 3:34 pm

    What bothers me is hearing “diversity candidate” in the workplace. Really? We all know what that means. You are so loving that careful words are your norm. We should all have that outlook.

    • April 10, 2012 at 8:45 pm

      I have never heard these words in the workplace, but I can readily imagine them! o.O

      Careful words are my norm now because I spent so much time being careless with my words. I’m still sometimes haunted by some of the words I unleashed, but also grateful for forgiveness granted when it wasn’t necessarily deserved.

      Love you.

  22. April 6, 2012 at 2:49 pm

    We use the word Vandal in negative connotation every day without a second thought even though it refers o a race of people who so long ago threatened the Roman Empire. Therefore, by definition, it is a racist comment. I am sure that, in its day, it was just as inflammatory as the word we are discussing now. But time has tempered that word as to mean nothing in our society today.

    I do not dimiss the plight of people of color in our country either in that past or in the present. I just look forward to the day when the word we discuss today means nothing as well.

    Of course, I have complete confidence in the human race. As soon as this word is gone, as soon as this hatred is erased, another will come along to replace it. People in general seem to have a need to hate. I wish that were not true.

    Just for the record, in case I have not made myself clear, I hate the word as well. I do not use it and my kids were not taught to use it, either.

    I hope what I have said has made sense. More importantly, I hope what I have said makes someone think without offending anyone.


    • April 14, 2012 at 8:31 pm

      It makes sense and I personally find no offense in them. Part of me wants to hope that we’re making progress toward a world where there won’t be a new word in its stead, but much of me also dismays at how much of today’s struggle mirrors struggles millenia old.

  23. April 6, 2012 at 3:18 pm

    Love this post. I wish more people would understand the difference between a descriptive word and a judgement. If someone would describe me as skinny, should I be offended? What if someone described me as heavyset?
    It is our own experience/upbringing that adds a negative connotation to otherwise simple descriptive words. And it is closed mindedness that keeps us holding on to this negativity.
    I’m not as eloquent with my words as you, but while trying to raise my children to reserve judgement, I have worked to help them understand accepting comments at face value vs. assuming a negative attachment. I want them to say, “yeah, you’re right, my feet are really big.” If someone tells them they have big feet, for instance. They themselves can have the power then to deflate the negative association.
    You tackle great topics and do it beautifully!

    • April 14, 2012 at 8:34 pm

      It is our own experience/upbringing that adds a negative connotation to otherwise simple descriptive words.
      So perfectly put! I don’t know that I can agree with your statement shortly afterward that you’re “not as eloquent” as me. Your words resonate so deeply with me. I love, too, what you say about raising your children, and the idea of giving them the power early on to “deflate the negative association.” These are wonderful thoughts to mull over as I think about the road ahead with my own little one!

  24. beccajean73
    April 6, 2012 at 11:54 pm

    I love the expression of bliss on your face ❤ fantastic!

  25. Lin Scarrow
    April 7, 2012 at 4:16 pm

    I too, thought deeply how to teach my daughter to see people. She and I talked about how the way we organize thoughts has a lot to do with what we notice and/or assume about their subjects. The example I used was a newspaper article about a black single mother’s struggle to make ends meet. I pointed out that her color description was inappropriate in that all single mothers have to struggle. That by adding her color made it so readers saw her as a black woman instead of a single mom. I told her that skin color was and should be used when you have a good reason to describe how someone looks: like with height,clothing, weight, and age.
    I think “Bill Nye The Science Guy” put it best when he said “We are all different shades of brown. If your ancestors came from closer to the equator, you had darker brown skin, and if you ancestors came from further away from the equator, you had lighter brown skin.”

    • April 14, 2012 at 8:39 pm

      I love how you incorporated that example into discussion with your daughter. I love, too, that quote from Bill Nye. It’s one I think I’ll have abundant use for in the future. Thank you for all of this.

  26. Jamie K
    April 7, 2012 at 5:39 pm

    I loved this post and as a person who never uses that horrid word, nor do I generally think of describing someone by their skin color, I was very touched by the thought put into every word.

    I read what you said about the person you thought of as your grandfather and it made me think of my own grandfather. He too was a byproduct of his era and I remember as a small child that he used the word in general conversation without any “meanness” or “hatred” behind it. To him it was just another word. But, I always felt uncomfortable hearing him say it. HOWEVER, 3 of my cousins are in what some may term multi-racial relationships with beautiful children who are the gift of their union. This is when my grandfather changed. When he saw his great grandchildren. Never again did he utter any sort of defamatory or derrogatory word. He adored them and thought of them as he did any other grandchild or great grandchild – exactly as it should be. I’d like to believe yours would do the same.

    Thank you for this post. Hope you don’t mind if I share it!

    • April 14, 2012 at 8:44 pm

      I love reading about your experiences with your family! This comment makes me wonder what it would’ve been like with my grampa. Like you, I’d like to believe that living, breathing, beautiful truth would’ve prevailed over long-standing, generalized fiction that skin color reflects anything more than melanin levels. And I do believe it, too.

      Thank you for reading, commenting and sharing!

  27. April 9, 2012 at 12:32 pm

    I REALLY love this post, and how it addresses our fears about race and puts our skin color into perspective. “Pretending there is no difference whatsoever, by contrast, serves only to emphasize the “white elephant” in the room about which we’re unwilling to speak, and thus perpetuate the idea that something is so important and so divisive that it must never be discussed. This is the heart of fear.” What an incredible line and so true, so true.

    • April 14, 2012 at 8:45 pm

      Thank you, Kasey! As I started writing it, I wondered if it really needed to be written . . . but the fact of even starting to write something means I’ve got some figuring out to do. These posts are how I do it. 🙂

  28. April 10, 2012 at 8:49 am

    Great post. I have a very hard time describing people because I don’t want to offend anyone, and some people are more touchy about descriptions., regardless of the truth of being skinny, overweight, short even color of skin. It’s a very fine line.. And i cringe at the thought someone would use the “n. Bomb” like nails on a chalkboard..

    • April 14, 2012 at 8:48 pm

      Likewise. Actually, after posting this, I was cleaning and listening to music when I realized some of my older music tosses the word around pretty liberally. It bugged me before, but now I find it unlistenable. (It’d be the same with some other strong derogatory words referenced above, but I haven’t heard many of the other ones bandied about in music!)

  29. April 18, 2012 at 9:38 am

    It is a loaded word that comes with historical baggage. When used in certain contexts, like you did to elucidate a point about your child, we view it from a clinical standpoint. When used with vitriol and as a way to diminish a person of color, it is derogatory and offensive. It is not a word I take lightly or use and it bothers me when some folk say it’s just a word in a cavalier manner… It is NOT just a word if we look at the historical usage of the term. Your use of it was thoughtful and considered but sadly, there are many who use that word to verbally maim and diminish people of my race. Sure, some rappers use the word and I find that equally offensive…
    We still have a long way to go with race relations so I would never recommend that we destigmatize all and any racist words; this applies to all derogatory words used against people of all ethnic backgrounds. Great post Deb!

    • November 25, 2012 at 11:24 am

      I love your comment and second your assessments. I believe that using the words to gain or enhance understanding, historical or present-day, is important, but cannot condone the use of any of these words when spoken hatefully.

      I’m revisiting this post in light of a search term leading to my blog yesterday: “white girls with nigger babies.” It’s easy for someone not to see hateful things like this if the immediate context of their life doesn’t clearly contain them, but they’re out there. Fortunately, so are folks with the drive to create a better world in which people are seen for who they are, not for any particular physical attribute.

      • November 25, 2012 at 11:28 am

        True… I recently shared a post about being called the N word in college. The pain might have healed but the memory lingers… 😦

      • November 25, 2012 at 11:35 am

        Do you mind sharing the link for me and anyone else subscribed to comments? I haven’t been able to read many blogs the last few months, but I want to make sure I don’t miss this one.

  30. Rachel Torivio
    November 7, 2012 at 8:38 am

    Growing up in our household which was headed by a single father who was raised in the south in the 40s we were taught to look at a persons character instead of their color because as my dad would say there are asses in all colors just because this one stinks don’t mean they all do

    • November 25, 2012 at 11:24 am

      there are asses in all colors just because this one stinks don’t mean they all do
      I love this!

  31. November 7, 2012 at 9:25 am

    I grew up in a military family. My whole life there were people of every race and culture living around us and going to school with me. Different skin tones and hair textures were so completely average to me, that I never thought anything of it at all. Everyone treated everyone with equal respect. They were all the same.
    When I was 17 years old, we moved out of that environment, and I encountered racism for the first time in my life. I was heartbroken. I didn’t understand it at all. What really confused me though, was the white people who went out of their way to show that they weren’t racist. By avoiding using words like “black”, in favor of the term African American, citing that “black” was offensive. Um…I’m white, that flower is red, that guy is black…I have personally never in my life met a black person who had a problem with being referred to as such.
    I still don’t understand how people see a descriptive term as being racist. That descriptive term does not give any hint of indication of the character of the person, no more than saying the “red” flower gives any kind of a hint as to the scent of the flower. If I’m wrong, I apologize to all crimson floral Americans offended by this post.

    • November 25, 2012 at 11:34 am

      Thank you so much for this. I loved your comment when I read it a couple weeks back, and I love it even more now. Reading it got me wondering–do folks focus on the words when that’s easier than focusing on some deeper seated discomfort? If that’s what’s happening in these moments of choosing the “right” terms, it seems it’s all the more important to talk openly.

      I actually just finished The Grace of Silence, a somewhat circuitous book (that I enjoyed nevertheless) about, among other things, race and personal history. I loved its conclusion, which proposed we should engage in open conversation–both by sharing more openly with those who talk to us, and by inviting others to tell us about themselves and histories which might, if we’re willing to listen to them, tell us a great deal about both them and ourselves. That’s where change will happen, not with forcing ourselves to find just the right descriptors.

  32. November 7, 2012 at 9:49 am

    I have also noticed a fear in people to describe people using their color. I have especially noticed some of my white friends avoiding describing people with skin color.These friends are friends that are very sensitive and want to honor individuals of color and not judge them by it. I have talked with friends about the dilemma they feel when faced with the situation of using color as a descriptor. Like Ba. D, I have encouraged my friends to mention an individual’s color. I look forward to a day that good people who have no intention of being racist do not have to second guess themselves or feel uncomfortable speaking about someone’s race. I think the comfort level people have with using color as a description will increase as society decreases the stereotypes and prejudices associated with color. We are slowly but surely coming along as a poeple and blogs like yours make all the difference in the world! Amazing!

    • November 25, 2012 at 11:39 am

      I cannot tell you how much it thrilled me to see your beautiful words here, Cara! Getting comments from friends is always a joy, made all the more intense when they’re so thoughtful and eloquent.

      I was going to quote one sentence of what you wrote, but then I realized I wanted to quote the next one, and the one after that. So I’ll focus on your conclusion: “the comfort level people have with using color as a description will increase as society decreases the stereotypes and prejudices associated with color.” I think you’re absolutely correct! While I wish this change could be faster, I am grateful that it is slowly, with great care and consideration, taking place. I love to imagine what the world will look like to our grandchildren, and our great-grandchilden.

      I would also love to imagine that somehow, despite their likely physical distance, they too will be friends. ♥

  1. November 21, 2012 at 1:11 pm
  2. December 30, 2012 at 8:40 am
  3. December 11, 2014 at 7:02 am
  4. December 21, 2014 at 10:24 pm

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