I get kids coming up to me on the playground all the time, telling me that one of their little compatriots "used the B word." I can usually figure that one out. Sometimes I'm asked to make sense out of the "the S word." It's not always what I think. Sometimes they mean "stupid." It's a relief of sorts, but it still gets my attention as elementary school hate speech. I do know that when they come to me tattling about "the N word," we're not talking about "nowledge." Over the years I have encountered a great many young African American males who are working on their machismo by puffing up their chests and hurling that particular epithet around, both in anger and camaraderie. I treat them just like the S word users. Mostly because it's only a matter of time before one of our Latino or Tongan kids gets hold of it and that intense bond that can sometimes be forged via shared suffering goes out the window. It's just another bad word.
Paula Deen should know that. The fact that responsible journalists and otherwise clever people still become flummoxed when they encounter it. Watching news anchors describe the tumult Ms. Deen has experienced "for using the N word" in the past reminds us of the power that certain words continue to hold, even after all these years. Paula Deen didn't go on the public airwaves and blather on without a trace of racial sensitivity. These were conversations that took place in private, but it was her reaction to the uproar that was most curious. What does she regret the most? Getting caught. Free speech? Sure. She can say what she wants, but her employers from the Food Network to Target and Home Depot can choose to respond in words of their own: “We have made a decision to phase out the Paula Deen merchandise in our
stores as well as on Target.com. Once the merchandise is sold out, we
will not be replenishing inventory.”
So, what do I ask for from the kids on the playground? An apology first. Paula Deen has done that any number of times. Then I ask the kids if they have any idea what the word means. They get the same experience if they start tossing around the G or the L word. If they're using words like they were sticks and stones, they could end up hurting someone. Like themselves.