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When you were a little kid and your big brother or the kid down the street called you a stupid idiot, did you run into the house crying and tell your mom? What was her response? I’ll bet she said something like this: “Sticks and stones will break your bones, but names will never hurt you?” Have you said those words to your own children? Maybe you even believed it as I once did. After all, what’s a little name calling? People need to toughen up, get a grip.
But I have come to think differently. I have had it with name-calling. It does hurt. Every time I read the newspaper and see that someone else has called someone the “n” word, or used a derogatory name for gay people, or any other senseless, hurtful word said for the express purpose of hurting someone, I get angry. I feel like I want to throw some of those sticks and stones at the name-callers. And I consider myself a non-violent person trying to be dedicated to the dream of Martin Luther King.
Another story about racism seems to pop up on the news almost daily. Like that ridiculous character, Dog, the Bounty Hunter, who is upset with his son’s choice of a Black girlfriend and let it be known by hurling racial epithets. Or the white soldier I know who lumps those of Middle Eastern descent into the “towel-heads” category. Then there was Don Imus — a disgusting person indeed. He’ll be back soon to foul the airwaves. Several weeks ago, a local paper contained an article about a woman and her two young bi-racial children who walked into a convenience store and were verbally attacked by a man because he didn’t approve of mixing up the races. Some people say ridiculous things and don’t even realize they are hurtful. Like Bill O’Reilly who was amazed that Black folks knew how to behave in a restaurant in Harlem. He “couldn’t get over the fact” that “there wasn’t any kind of craziness at all” at a Black-owned restaurant in Harlem. Imagine that — Black folks who know how to act when they’re out to eat. Then there are Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton who think Barack Obama isn’t “black enough” because he didn’t go to the Jena Six march. Now I don’t know if Barack gets upset when he hears stuff like that, but I do. What would make him black enough? What does that even mean? And what about Isiah Thomas who thinks it’s okay for Black men to call black women the “b” word? I don’t know whether to laugh, cry, beat my head against a wall, or join a protest march. No, let me change that first option. Laughing I cannot do, because nothing is funny about it. What is wrong with people? And how many times a day do I ask myself that question? Really, what is wrong with people?
When did meanness and insensitivity become so widespread and acceptable in our society? Since when is it okay to spew hate and then apologize by saying “I’m sorry if I offended anyone”? How can I graciously accept the apology of someone who so obviously is just mouthing the words for his or her own political or social redemption?
People like me are told to buck up, get over it, but I just can’t. Maybe I feel the pain more than some people because I have two daughters who are bi-racial. We moved into a hostile white neighborhood over 30 years ago when they were preschoolers. Never ones to back down from a controversial situation, we insinuated ourselves into their midst; and after a while, the neighbors softened up and adjusted. My youngest daughter’s first experience with racism came at the tender age of three. She went outside to play soon after we moved in. One of the little boys, also three, from down the street came to check out this new family. After a few minutes, she came back in the house in a huff (she was always pretty dramatic), arms akimbo. “That boy,” she said “called me a n….. (n-word) and said I was black.” Trying to remain calm, I asked her what her response was. “Well,” she said “I told him I’m not black, I’m just a little bit brown.” I had to smile. That day included one of many talks that I had over the years with my children about who they are, the real world, and how they had to be strong and ready for whatever life threw at them. (As it is with young children, it wasn’t long before that little boy, my kids, and the other children in the neighborhood became friends and spent many a summer day in the woods and fields around our house.)
My daughters are adults now. They have experienced name-calling and discrimination; and it has toughened them up. Which isn’t to say that they don’t have some of the same insecurities and fears that many of us share. But they have always known exactly who and what they are and how to respond to the insensitivity of others. Against some tough odds, I worked really, really hard at instilling in them a sense of pride and self-worth.
No matter how strong and resilient and empowered we may be, or think that we may be, name calling still hurts. We can respond by shrugging it off, trying to have a conversation with the name-caller, or maybe even yelling a few choice swear words ourselves. But that doesn’t always stop the pain that lingers deep down inside. I am not naive enough to think that racism and intolerance will ever disappear; but please, people, can we just stop to think before we speak, try to learn about others, have some respect?
Antoinette “Toni” Yates was born and raised in Ford City, PA.