Miss Millie: You kids are so clean. You wanna come work for me? Be my maid?
Sophia: Hell no.
—from The Color Purple
These lines, and Sophia’s subsequent beat down at the hands of a mob of white men who didn’t take too kindly to a black woman expressing, under no uncertain terms, that she had higher ambitions for her children other than for them to scrub floors for the rest of their lives, came to mind yesterday when I read THIS MADNESS over at Momlogic.com. Dr. Wendy Walsh, a white mom of a biracial daughter, questioned whether our “historical trappings” over the use of slurs have “loosened”—whether we’re “so far past the tragedies and injustices of the past” that this new generation can make light of” the “N” word and other insults historically reserved for people of color without assigning any meaning to them. The mom’s query came after her daughter, who presumably looks black (or at least something other than white), revealed that she calls her best friend, who is white, “blonde”—as in “dumb blonde”—and the best friend calls the biracial girl “maid”—as in, “back in the days of slavery, you would have been my maid.”
This whole expanded definition of the "blonde and maid" friendship didn't soothe me a whole lot. But it did get me thinking about how terms of endearment are sometimes slurs that, spoken in the privacy of an intimacy, imply, "This is our special word. Our joke. This separates us from the world and bonds us together."
The mom goes on to suggest that the “affectionate” nickname her daughter’s white friend has assigned to her is not much different from the use of the “N” word by “many African-Americans… within their racial circle,” or the “loving, intimate way” an old boyfriend proudly called her his “N.” “I accepted it with love,” she writes.
DEAD FISH EYES.
But I will.
Um, you can do all the convenient self-reflection/analytical thinking/tap-dancing you want to, but the bottom line is this: Where I come from, calling a black child a “maid” would earn you a Ms. Sophia-styled cuss out if you’re lucky, a sound Shaniqua-esque ass whooping if you say it to the wrong one. Best believe, Mari and Lila would surely know better than to let any child, much less a white one, refer to them as servants. For sure, I asked my 10-year-old, Mari, what would be her reaction if a friend called her “maid” for fun, and she said, simply, “I would think it was kinda racist and I’d ask her not to say it again.”
Now, if a 10-year-old gets this, why all the questions from the “maid’s” mother? Venture a guess, but I’m thinking she doesn’t get it because she’s never known—and never will know—what it truly feels like to be called the “N” word and know that it was hurled at you from a person with a hardened heart and a palpable explosion of hate toward people with brown skin. She has no clue how it feels to be followed around the drug store by store workers who think she’s about to steal something—just because her skin is brown. She hasn’t a clue what it feels like to feel virtual steam rise from the top of your head when you get sat next to the bathroom at the restaurant and then get ignored for half an hour because no one wants to serve you—just because your skin is brown. And clearly, she’s never been out with her baby at the park, only to have a fellow white mom press a phone number in her hand with instructions to call her if she’s looking for a new nanny job—the white mom’s assumption that she’s on the playground strictly to watch over and wipe the asses of other peoples’ children and not your own.
But her daughter will know firsthand how hurtful that hate and those assumptions are. Because at some point, someone is going to get a gander of her brown skin and call her out of her name—and it won’t be done “with love and affection.” It’ll be done because the name-caller will think the color of her skin makes her inferior, and he’ll want her to feel inferior, too. And when (not if, but when) that happens, it won’t be all giggles and good times for her or her child.
Instead of simply pontificating on whether it’s okay for her daughter to be called “maid,” my sincere hope is this mother sat her daughter down—and her little friend, too—and explained to both of them the “you should know better” of this situation—that it’s NEVER a good idea to let someone refer to you in a way that can be even remotely construed as derogatory, disrespectful or racist, no matter the name-caller’s intent. For starters, it’s neither cute nor funny. And the moment you LET someone refer to you that way is the moment that you co-sign everyone else getting in on that action.
In other words, they both need to know that wrong is wrong and racism is real—no matter what color the president is, no matter how many kumbaya moments we’re engaging in with other races, no matter how far white folks think we’ve come.
Anything less is akin to this mother letting her daughter and friend play with matches without explaining to them that they’re dangerous and could burn the house down.