Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

You are here

The worst word

Desiape's picture

When I was in fourth grade, my mother sat me down and warned me of a word. So evil, she told me not even to say it by name, the n-word. She said this word was one of the worst things to be called. Briefly eluding to its dark history and severe cultural implications, she told me not to simply laugh off the use this word. After our talk, I am not sure I fully understood the word and it’s sorted past, but I felt a fear begin to bubble up inside me as the implications of my 'blackness' began to dawn on me. All of a sudden, discrimination was a reality that my skin would never let me hide from.

What felt like the next day, I was sitting at lunch, laughing and talking with other students, making fun of each other as we often did. At my predominantly white elementary school, I had not yet learned to be wary of my classmates. I felt comfortable enough to consider myself on equal footing with them. I made a comment that one of the other students had a head like ‘Hey Arnold’ and the other students laughed. Upset, the boy turned to the student next to him and whispered something. They both stared at me, intrigued I questioned further about his comment. Though my recollection about the exact series of events that led to the reveal of the word are somewhat hazy, I do remember it oozing out of this little boys mouth. Vicious and filled with malice, I felt the word knock all the wind out of me. Nigger. With that, it was out there, a divide, between the ‘us’ and the ‘them.’ I was on one side, excluded from the rest, by one six letter word.

Unashamed and unabashed the boy looked me deep into my eyes and repeated himself, laughing the whole time.  After not even knowing about the existence of this word all of a sudden it felt as if it was my new label. I felt the fear from the conversation with my mother return as a new sensation, of what I can only now recognize as marginalization entered the growing mix of emotions swirling around inside me. I wasn’t sure if the other students fully understood the implications of the word, but they began to laugh as I felt myself begin to cry.

My tears did not stop their laugher, which continued throughout lunch. No matter what I did I couldn’t stop the crying, as lunch shifted to recess and the tears continued. on my return to the classroom after recess I saw my brother in the hallway and told him about what had happened. He was filled with anger, but in the long run he and I both knew there was nothing either of us could do.

Back in my classroom, confused and vulnerable, I continued my crying. My teacher, after watching me cry all throughout recess without saying a word to me, turned and said, “Deedee, that’s enough crying, just get over it, one more tear and you’re going to the principal’s office.” I was shocked by her response, but I was sure I was the one who was wrong for making such a big deal out of the incident. In response, I shut myself up and shut myself off from the rest of the class for the rest of the day.

Looking back, the callousness of my teacher and classmates on the issue seemed to transcend the normal realm of cultural insensitivity, bordering on emotional cruelty. As the sole person of color in my classroom in any capacity, I was never represented in of the literature or course material and everyone seemed to do whatever they could to ignore my race. What hurt the most about this incident went beyond the simple ignoring of my personal context, but moreover, the manner in which my race was nonchalantly brought into the classroom. They (everyone else in the classroom and the majority in the school) would always have this word that could pull me back from greatness into inequality, putting me ‘in my place.’

Also, it was that the people I went to school with were unable (and openly refused) to see why I might have strong feelings about the event that took place. I had to 'just get over it,' regardless of what 'it' might be. In the context of this school and that classroom, my job was to silently take all of the injustices that I might feel strongly about and keep them out of this separate world of education. Because of this I instilled in myself the idea that the realm of school and education was not one that myself, as a person of color, was 'allowed' to be a part of.

I constantly felt like an outsider as my personal and cultural contexts continued to be diminished during my pursuit of an education. I filled my time at this institution working to cut ties with my culture as to succeed in the classroom, but fear and anxiety continued to rule my educational pursuits.  After years to coming to terms with the flaws of this mentality, there are still times when I find myself giving into the idea that pieces of myself must be separated and ignored in order for me to survive in the school arena.

I find myself asking how a woman like that teacher could have become a teacher in the first place, and why, after my mother brought up her behavior, no repercussions ensued. Lastly, I worry about all the students who were forced to learn from her and who, like me, internalized her callousness as strength or 'right' or ‘correct’ behavior.