My Black Son Sold “N-Word Passes” to His White Friends
His sister thinks he’s made almost $1,000.
By JAMILAH LEMIEUX
JULY 15, 20202:01
Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.
Dear Care and Feeding,
Eleven years ago, my husband and I started fostering a sister and brother,“Taylor” and “Martin,” and we adopted them a year later. Our daughter was 5, and our son was an infant, but they are now 16 and 11 and are smart, kind, and mostly well-behaved kids. My husband and I are white, and they are Black, but we’ve done our best to have honest, age-appropriate discussions on race, our privilege, and how messed up the systematic oppression and racism in our country is. I thought we had done an OK job … until yesterday.
Taylor asked us after dinner if she could talk to us in private and showed us screenshots a friend had sent her. Apparently, Martin has been selling “N-word passes” to kids at his middle school for $20-50! It’s been going on for weeks, and he had offered it to Taylor’s friend’s sister, who screenshot it and sent it to Taylor. They go to diverse schools for our area, but there are still a lot of white/non-Black kids there. Taylor told us that kids have been sending Martin money via Venmo, and she thinks he’s made almost $1,000. My husband and I are shocked and angry, and we don’t know what to do. Martin’s actions must have made his fellow Black classmates upset and uncomfortable, and I feel like a horrible mother and person. I thought we did a good job, but we must have done something wrong. We need to give him consequences, but I don’t know how extreme to go. Right now, I’m leaning toward taking away device privileges for a long, long time and confiscating the money. What else can or should we do? How do we confront him about this and apologize and tell other parents?
While I certainly understand why you are embarrassed and disappointed, it’s difficult to prevent kids from using inappropriate language in general, and it’s not surprising that a Black child would feel a sense of ownership and/or entitlement to use the word as he sees fit in spite of what his parents say, especially considering that you will never have the same relationship to the term that he does. There’s also something hilarious and brilliant, if also naïve and shortsighted, about him getting paid for something that was going to happen anyway.
What Martin must understand is that while some of his classmates have played along with this charade, none of them who purchased his “passes” were actually waiting for anyone’s permission to say “n-gga.” Furthermore, as they are unable to access the experiences that come with being a “n-gga,” he ought to spend some serious time considering that while he can pretend as though he is giving his friends access to one of the “fun” parts of being Black, they will be spared the disenfranchisement and toll that comes with this identity—which should bother him. Why do these kids want to use that word so badly? And how would he feel if other Black people, particularly Black elders, heard them speak in such a way?
The current socio-political climate offers no shortage of examples as to why white people do not deserve the privilege of using the N-word, nor the ability to decide that Black people should not be able to use it. You have every right to ban it in your home and to teach your kids that it is an ugly word with an ugly history; however, Black people have an infinitely more complex relationship to the term, and he’ll have to learn how to grapple with that without doing something that could cause harm to other Black folks and/or his friends who were “waiting” for permission to use it.
Hopefully, there is a Black adult in Martin’s life—a godparent, a neighbor, etc.—whom he is close enough to that they can help you with this conversation. It sounds like Martin needs a reminder as to how “n—as” are treated by our society and why he has very little to gain and a lot to lose from cheapening his people’s experiences to make a quick buck. It would be ideal for him to hear that from someone who has experienced the anti-Blackness that brought the word to life in the first place. Your son must understand that regardless of how much he trusts these white friends of his, who are so eager to use the N-word (in front of him) that they’ll pay for the privilege, empowering them to do so is a betrayal of the Black folks who would be upset at such a thing—aka the majority of Black people.
Find out how the other Black kids at his school have reacted to this business, as there may need to be some healing done. Also, what is Martin’s relationship to them? If he and his sister are not regularly finding themselves in a community with children who look like them, then that is something you’ll have to address. Black kids who don’t have healthy social interactions with other Black kids have a world of trouble waiting for them.
As far as folks who purchased the pass, tell their parents ASAP. Good luck to whomever has to explain to those kids why they can’t say the N-word—which, again, they were probably saying as they saw fit any damn way. And good luck to you, for this isn’t an easy challenge to deal with. Oh, and donate the money to a bail support fund for Black Lives Matter protesters or another organization that is doing anti-racist work.