I grew up in a small town of about 1,500 or so. Like most small towns in the North Texas area, 90% of the people I saw everyday looked like me. Almost every face was white. There were a handful of Hispanic families, but not many. Up until I was in middle school, I knew of only two African-American families, and both of them lived in the same trailer park as I did. That’s right, a trailer park. I even had a mullet in the early 90’s. I’m well aware of my stereotypical childhood.
We were friends with one of the families. Willie and his sons were frequent visitors at our place and vice versa. However, the other family, whose names I have little recollection of, were not welcome anywhere near us. They were simply called “those n*****s”. I’m not sure why there was a distinction between the two families. To my knowledge the despised family had never done anything to us. It’s just the way it was.
One of Willie’s son, Chris, and I were playing in the driveway one day. We were both probably around 6 or 7 years old. I don’t remember what we were playing, probably G.I. Joe’s or something typically boyish. What I do remember clearly is getting upset with Chris about something. It is one of my earliest memories of knowing that I was on the wrong side of the argument but refusing to give in and admit that fact. As a pitiful last resort in my effort to win I let fly with a verbal barrage that I had heard many times in circles made up of only those faces that looked like mine. “You stupid nigger!” Yeah, you read that right. Yes, I actually spelled it out. That’s what I said, and that was the last time I said it.
You see, Chris didn’t like what I had said. I know that because he immediately responded to my despicable language by punching right in the face. He knocked the snot out of me. As I ran crying to the house with a bloodied nose with Chris following close behind, our parents met us at the door trying to figure out what had happened. It didn’t take long to get to the bottom of the situation. I was scolded for my outburst by the same people who used the same word for just as childish and ignorant reasons. Willie made Chris and I shake hands and attempt to bury the hatchet.
Chris and I didn’t hang out much after that. In fact, I don’t know that I have another memory of us playing together or even speaking. I know that memories are not always complete, but I wouldn’t be surprised if our friendship never recovered. What I did was wrong and intentionally hurtful. I imitated behavior I had seen so many times before without knowing the weight of what I was saying. All I knew is that it was something that would hurt Chris and make me feel superior. It worked — for a second. After the blood and tears dried I realized that I was not going to sign up for this ride again.
No, I didn’t have an epiphany about the inherent hatred of racism or racially-charged language. I was a first-grader for crying out loud. All I knew is that I hurt a friend and, in turn, hurt myself. I deserved to be punched in the face. It was the lesson I needed in the importance of the power of words.
Friend, if you’re still reading this, please understand that what you say matters. The Book of James says that you can either bless or curse others with your words. Your language has the power to burn lives to the ground. Also, please remember that everyone single one of us has been a verbal arsonist at several points in our lives. None of us are innocent. When others fail with their words, grant forgiveness and pursue peace. When you fail with your words, and you will, own up to it. Humble yourself and ask forgiveness. Learn your lessons before you destroy people.
Trust me, it is neither easy nor desirable to watch people walk out of your life while you wipe away the tears and blood shed by your ignorance and pride.