The first time T lowered his chin, narrowed his eyes, clenched his fists, and called me a dirty, fucking cunt, I cried. I honestly didn’t know what else to do. Nothing could have prepared me for the string of profanities coming out of his mouth. Then he started punching himself in the face, and I knew I was in too deep.
At some point, though, I got desensitized to his swearing. He would threaten to cut off my bitch-ass head, and (on my good days) I would raise an eyebrow and move on, wondering aloud about his unique choice of compound modifiers.
But the first time the school called to tell me he was using the n-word, I felt sick. I felt rage and sadness and despair. I didn’t know how to walk alongside him as he unlearned this, too. It was a learned behavior, of course—a posture toward others he had witnessed his adults—his safe people—taking for years.
To stand with him well, I knew I couldn’t stand alone. So, I read books and blogs; I reached out to people for help and advice. We talk incessantly about how ugly and hateful that word is. We talk about why. And he gets it. He knows why kids beat him up for saying it. He can articulate it with profound empathy and understanding.
But it hasn’t stopped.
T’s a white kid in a mostly Black and Latino school, and kids know how to hurt each other. He uses the n-word or calls certain kids gorillas, and they chant ‘orphan’ at him until he cries. It’s horrible. It’s heartbreaking. They are all raising vile defenses, because, in the heat of the moment, they can’t fight through the pain to access their healthy coping strategies.
My last resort has been to just keep making it as personal as possible. We talk about the people he knows and loves who have been irrevocably wounded by that word. We wonder aloud how sad and disappointed they would feel to hear him saying something that causes them so much hurt.
And I wonder in my head if any of this is sticking at all. Some days, I think it might be.
Like when we were driving down the street during Pride Month and T commented on all the rainbow flags.
“I love those flags, Amy. Rainbow is my favorite color. Well, it used to be—now it’s green. So, I guess rainbow is my second favorite color. Do you know there’s one of those at my summer camp? They told us what it means, but I forgot.”
So, we talked about what the flags represent and why they matter. At first, he wanted nothing to do with my explanation. I could tell he was cross-referencing my words against conversations he’d overheard in his past. The tension made him uncomfortable, but, after a few minutes, he started drawing his own connections. He talked about his friends—people who have loved him and cared for him—and how he wanted them to be safe and happy.
Then he added, “My family doesn’t like that, though, Amy. I remember. But people are just people, and we should love everyone.”
That was a good day. That was a day where it seemed like something important had taken root, and we had moved a step beyond crass judgments and categorizations. In a calm environment, he had overcome a default response. He had overcome a learned bias and thought for himself. He had chosen, at that moment, to connect with the real love he’d experienced from real people.
But there are plenty of days I feel like I’m fighting a losing battle as I make sad attempts to uproot the entrenched words and rationales that roll through his mind and right off his tongue.
Like when we were reading before bed the other night. With great spite, a Black character tells the main character, who is white, to go back to “his people.”
T looked at me and sighed, “Good thing I’m with my people! Right, Amy?”
It caught me off guard. I didn’t handle it well.
“What do you mean, T?”
“Because we’re both white.”
“People are people, T. You’re with your people because I’m a person. Period. That guy was being racist. Don’t be like him, okay?”
He hung his head and nodded, and my heart sank.
As I tucked him in, my guilt and his shame mingled into a heavy cloud over our heads. I mechanically reached for Simon, one of his favorite stuffed animals. She was a gift from his mom and dad, and he asks me to tuck her in every night, too.
“T, do you think Simon ever gets teased for being a girl-cat with a name that most people assume is for a boy?”
“I hope not, Amy. I love Simon! I would never want anyone to tease her!”
“I know, T. But do you remember how you felt the day we named her?”
“At first, I didn’t like it when you decided that my cat was a girl. It just felt too strange and weird to me.”
“Right,” I said, “You were a little mad at me, I think. But you had asked me to pick if it was a boy or a girl. I said I would as long as you picked the name first, and you agreed.”
“And now I like having a girl-cat named Simon! She’s just my cat, and I love her. It doesn’t matter what her name is or if she’s a boy or a girl.”
“Right. It doesn’t matter what her name is or if she’s a boy or a girl. It doesn’t matter because she’s ours and we love her. And if your other stuffed animals are mean to her, we’d make them stop. We’d stand up for Simon.”
“Of course, Amy! We’d make them stop because it doesn’t matter what someone’s name is. We would tell them that.”
“Exactly. Just like it doesn’t matter what color someone’s skin is or where they live or who they choose to marry. We just love them because people are people. Period.”
He smiled and hugged me, but I still felt awful leaving his room that night.
And a few days later I got another call from school about T’s racist language.
I try not to blame myself when he perpetuates behaviors he learned long before I knew him, but it’s hard. It’s also hard to try to walk calmly through a minefield of trauma, knowing I will inevitably fail over and over again.