The other night my kid was hanging around outside the church after Sunday School and saw two boys scuffling a little. He wasn't sure if it was all in fun - there was a big gap in their ages. He was moving closer to see what was going on, when he was shocked to hear the younger kid, a white boy, say the unmentionable to the other - who is black.
I heard about it in the car on the way home. It was kind of funny, the way he related it, even though we aren't supposed to find anything funny in the use of the word. "Jimmy (names have been changed) called Johnny the n-word." I had to ask "Did he say "n-word" or did he say the actual word?" "It was the actual word." "OK, just to be clear, what did he say?" Panicky voice now: "Should I say it, the word?" (Because of course one must not say that word, even when quoting someone else saying the word.) He goes on, "I know, I'll spell it." This is the boy who can't spell, but, OK, go ahead. He spells out "n-i-g-e-r." "Niger? He called him a Niger?" "No, no! Two g's!"
Well, laughing aside, I was glad he told me. I asked if anything more was said after that. "No. Johnny was dumbstruck." We really didn't have to get into a lecture about the use of the word; been there, done that, and it was obvious he was upset by the kid's use of it.
So I had to call the mom. That was fun. She was gracious and concerned too. I doubt we'll ever hear anything about it again.
It's a bad word. But it's also bad that the word has developed such an aura of evil that it can't be spoken even when someone is quoting someone else's use of it. I can see why people are afraid of books like Huckleberry Finn. It's too bad the word has such power. Maybe if we hadn't made it so powerful, it wouldn't be so hurtful. Easy for me to say, I guess.