Hurtful things, spoken in haste

June 05, 2005|by BOB MAGINNIS

This is the story of two spoken slurs - one bad, the other much worse - and how children can hurt each other without thinking.

I'm not using the name of the woman who told me this tale because I don't want to make the situation worse. I'm telling it because some parents may find something that applies to their own families.

She told me her family came to Hagerstown from Washington, D.C., looking for a better way of life for the children. She sought the same when she moved to a small town along Interstate 81 in West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle. Now she's found that it isn't what she thought it would be.

As someone who took a similar journey 31 years ago, I know a small bit of what she's talking about. You can be here for decades and still be thought of as the newcomer, the person who isn't "from here."


But nobody ever got nasty with my children on the school bus because of that. And, when my boys got into fights, they were about guy things, like getting hit in the back of the head with a snowball.

But this African-American mother in her 20s now has to explain to her son why boys on the bus, one of whom he's played sports with, have called him the "n-word."

It's been a shock and a sad experience, she said, in part because she was never treated badly when she lived across the road from North Hagerstown High School.

"I wasn't exposed to racial discrimination. If it was there, it was very subtle," she said.

But last month, she said, "it all blew up."

The child, a neighbor, called him a n------ . It hurts the child worse than it might, she said, because he knows the negative history behind the word.

"I have books on the civil-rights movement. I try to make him aware that 20 or 30 years ago, we didn't have the rights and privileges that we have today," she said.

Her daughter, she said, is too young to understand what the fuss is about, but knows that her brother is unhappy.

"She can sense or feel how upset (her brother) is," she said.

Because one of the boys involved lives nearby, she said she called one of his parents and suggested that they get together and explain, with the children present, how harmful it is.

She described the parent as "nonchalant" about what had happened, and the meeting never took place.

That's too bad, because in the meantime, she said she talked to her son about why the boys would want to do something like that.

Her son revealed that - a while back, according to him - he'd called one of them the "Pillsbury Doughboy" because he's a little chunky.

"I told my son that that wasn't right," she said.

But a meeting that might have taught both young men a lesson about what it means to own up to what you've done didn't take place. It might have ended with some real understanding and a handshake, but it didn't happen.

"Now we go to the bus stop every morning and we stand on one side of the street and they stand on the other," she said.

That's ironic, she said, because the civil-rights movement was all about giving black people the right to be in the same places that white people were.

As a result of all this, she's looking for a place to move back to in Hagerstown.

"I don't want to feel like I'm running away from the problem, but I don't want my children to develop a complex, either," she said.

To the people who toss around the n-word in front of their children as freely as some people toss popcorn to pigeons, consider this:

Your children are likely, at some point in the near future, to work with, or be supervised by, a person of color. If they've been taught to disrespect people of other races, this will be communicated to their co-workers or supervisors, even if they never say a single cross word.

Body language will do it all, and they will not advance as far as they otherwise might, because of something you taught them.

Think about that the next time you're tempted to use the n-word, or tell a joke in which the punchline depends on a racial stereotype.

Parent also should teach their children that negative comments on someone else's weight or physical appearance can result in a sad moment that the object of the taunt remembers forever.

The taunter will remember those times, too. Unless the child grows up without a conscience, years later he or she will remember with regret the pain they inflicted, as children too often do, without a moment's thought.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail.

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