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Guarding innocence against a word

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By MARLENE SOKOL, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published October 4, 2002

It's Sunday. A beautiful Sunday. The kind you'd pay money for.

I'm out with my son and my neighbor's son. I'm trying to keep the boys occupied so the men can watch the Bucs game in peace.

No good deed ever goes unpunished, and so I find myself in something of a Dear Abby moment.

Nearby are four older kids in various stages of adolescence, wrestling and teasing each other, talking mostly about innocent kid stuff.

The trouble is their language. One word in particular: The N-word.

They say it absent-mindedly, like punctuation, the way girls that age say "like."

N-word, that towel ain't yours . . . What's that N-word doing? . . . N-word, that bee didn't sting you.

Maybe I'm over-reacting. It's none of my business if these four young men, with skin a good bit darker than mine, want to say the N-word. Two of them lapse occasionally into Spanish, so maybe they consider themselves Hispanic and not black.

Whatever their heritage, they have more standing than I do where the N-word is concerned. And let's not forget that this is America, where the First Amendment lets them say whatever they want.

Except for one thing.

My son is 6 and I'd rather he not hear the N-word.

He hears a good bit of juicy language, growing up in a journalists' home.

But the N-word needs to be off-limits. I don't watch Spike Lee movies around him for that reason. I flinched when someone said the word on the PBS Civil War documentary.

He will hear the word, I know. He may have heard it already in the schoolyard, or on the soccer field.

But what he heard, if he was listening this past Sunday, was a steady repetition that grew faster as the hour progressed.

He seemed oblivious. Lost in his little games, as always.

But his friend, who is African-American, gazed at the four older kids curiously. His parents would not have approved of the word, which raises another issue. Should I have treated him as I treated my own son? Or been more vigilant?

What were my alternatives?

Take the children home, allow a single word to ruin the day?

Or approach the foursome and ask them to watch their language? Would they have laughed? Could they know they were offending anybody with a verbal tick that might simply be the byproduct of listening to rap?

Did I hold back because of assumptions I made, based on their use of that one offensive word? A notion that I should not challenge them? That it was safer to leave them alone?

And who am I to pretend I can censor what my child hears? Or mold his speech, any more than these kids' parents have been able to?

I don't want my son, in his innocence, to say something that would offend a friend or classmate; hence my effort to shield him from the word until he is mature enough to understand its impact.

But how long do I think I can protect him?

We played awhile -- the kids were having fun -- and then the foursome left. Arriving soon after were a father and two children. Dad, a Danny Glover type, appeared the picture of middle-class respectability. I might have asked his opinion on the foursome and their language.

But he and his children were enjoying each other's company. It was a picture-perfect Sunday.

Too nice to ruin with a single word.

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