In this episode of Parenthood, Jabbar overhears a word spoken during a conversation in the studio that evokes strong reactions in this country, reactions varying in intensity depending on how it is used, what form is used, who the speaker is and who the target is. What is this word that can produce such immediate but diverse reactions? It's the "n-word." The word that is so abhorrent to so many that it is only referred to as "the n-word" to represent it. Even putting it in print seems offensive and may cause reactions of shuddering and feelings of anger or shame.
While visiting Crosby in the studio, Jabbar inadvertently overhears several African-American musicians talking in a casual manner among themselves and using a derivation of the n-word with seemingly no emotional conflict. Yet Crosby is Caucasian, has a Caucasian's surface understanding of this sensitive word, and he feels great anxiety as he tries to figure out how to respond to Jabbar's questions. Jasmine, who is African-American, has a more personal insight into the word's usage and history. For a first discussion, Jasmine does beautifully; even Crosby learns from her. Her explanation begins the process of understanding that the n-word has been used historically to demean African-Americans, to inflict pain, to subjugate, to imply power over and to refer back to slavery and segregation.
Will Jabbar hear the n-word again in his life? Of course he will. Jabbar is bi-racial and he will be an easy target to a never-ending supply of insensitive jerks out there. It is also true that he is at the age where children (both boys and girls) look for ways to gain rank on the social ladder.
All children, Jabbar included, need to understand that racial slurs of any kind are like claws and teeth. They can tear tiny strips of skin off of bones one piece at a time, or in large, damaging slices that send the victim into a downward spiral of humiliation, self-destruction and anger, and frequently, escalation and retaliation. Racial slurs are a form of bully behavior and all children (and adults) need to understand that they should not, and will not be tolerated. Children are mimics - of both good and bad behaviors - and take their cues and lessons from adults, watching and imitating how their parents and other adults treat people of different ethnic backgrounds.
How can Jabbar's peers at school be led to eliminate racial slurs from their language at this stage of power struggles? By parents and teachers setting good examples; by parents and teachers explaining the meaning of the offensive words and how they can and can't be used; by having peers themselves tell what it feels like personally when they hear words like the n-word used.
Tell children that words can make or break friendships, regardless of later apologies. Jabbar should also be told how to react in the future when he hears the n-word used. He should be upfront about telling the person that the word is offensive and that he doubts anyone will respect him or her if it remains a part of his or her vocabulary. Jabbar needs to be a self-advocate, to be proud of himself and who he is. He needs confidence that no word will make him think less of himself, only less of the one using it. He needs to know that it says more about the person using the racial slur than it does about the target. Schools can easily incorporate this lesson into anti-bully curricula.
Yes, words can destroy and demean, but they can also strengthen and empower self-esteem and respect. Jasmine has begun this process with Jabbar, but it's not finished. She will need to have many other talks with him as he grows up - about the n-word and all the other words that can hurt people of different races, backgrounds and walks of life. The list is endless.
Humans have taken this power business to the extreme, using words in ways and forms that can upset entire nations and bring conflict, riot and even war. Jabbar will learn that he should not be the one to inflict harm on others; instead, he can be the one to defuse a situation. This will take training and support from both Jasmine and Crosby, backed up by the school system. Jabbar is not the only child that needs instruction in this area.
Our world will be formed by the children of today. Children are our future; how that future plays out will depend on how we instruct them.
Written by Sheila Wagner, M.Ed.