Anyone who has ever been in the minority remembers the first time a word knocked the wind out of them. As a child, my first time came packaged in a rhyme known by everyone– making the blow feel conspiratorial and that much worse. The rhyme is part of every 10 year- old’s decision making routine. The melody and words are recited automatically with little attention paid to detail. But I remember the first time the words hit me.
I don’t remember what we were trying to decide, but we would defer to the routine to make the decision. “Eeeny, meeny, miney, moe, catch a n***** by the toe.”
Wait. Did I hear right? Isn’t tigger? I’d always said tigger. Or Tiger. I think its tiger. Isn’t it? My face was hot.
The first kid was eliminated from the decision-making process as the rhyme came again. “Eeeny, meeny miney, moe, catch a n***** by the toe.”
I looked at each face in the group to see if anyone else realized what they’d said–maybe it was a collective mistake? I was stunned as the third wave of rhyming started again. But as we approached ‘catch a…’ I snapped out of my daze and as if on auto-pilot, I yelled “TIGER!” over the rest of the white kids who proceeded as usual.
They stopped chanting, looked at me and ‘Caroline’ said flatly, “It’s not tiger.”
“Well, it’s not n*****.” I said.
She smiled as she replied, “It is n*****. You just think its tiger because you are a n*****.”
I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood in a predominantly white city. My parents are Caribbean immigrants. My mother occasionally reminded my sister and me “You’re black and you’re women. You’ll have to work twice as hard.” But that’s where our advice on race and identity ended. I can’t tell you when or how I learned that the n-word is a bad word, but I think on some gut level, people of color just know.
I can still remember the acid rising in my throat as I dug my nails into the palms of my clenched fists. I simultaneously wanted to hurt each of these kids, and hug them and ask them to love me. I felt stupid for only now figuring out the words, and they looked at me as though I’d just been let in on a group secret– one that they’d been eager for me to discover.
An older boy broke the painful silence with this gem: “You’re not really a n*****. You just look like one.”
With a 10 year-old’s best judgment, this explanation was good enough for me because I wanted friends. (Throughout my life I’d continue to hear different versions of this statement that I wouldn’t accept as easily–but that’s another essay.)
The first time is never predictable, but always memorable. There is no way a child can be prepared for their first time, which breaks my heart as a new parent. I can’t protect my daughter from her first time, but I can hold her when she cries.