Friday, March 7, 2014

Use Of A Very Hurtful Word Puts Grandpa In An Ugly Spot

Dear Tazi-Kat:

I am the father of two wonderful children, now grown and married, and the grandfather of five; all teenaged boys. I am also a Black man who grew up in the Deep South, which is to say so much more: I was poor, received a sub-standard education, and lived a life so steeped in racism that I knew nothing different until I moved up North to go to college on a sports scholarship. Through education and hard work, I became the man I am today: a successful businessman, a loving husband, a father of two successful children, and a happy, well-adjusted, contributing member of my community. It is therefore with great chagrin that I find myself in need of your advice.

My four eldest grandsons are all amazing young men – student-athletes, straight-A students, hard-working, and respectful young, Black men. Both their parents and their grandparents (my wife and I, as well as my children’s in-laws) have always been very active in their lives and expected much of them, and they have yet to disappoint. My youngest grandson, who just turned 14, is another story. Perhaps it has been because he has seen all that goes into the success of his brothers and cousins, or perhaps it is because he feels he could never reach such heights, but “Joseph” has simply failed to thrive.

Since starting middle school, Joseph’s grades have plummeted to the point where he has had to leave the very exclusive private school he has attended since kindergarten and attend the public schools. He has turned away from his upbringing, saying we are all “trying to turn him white” and other hateful things. He refuses to wear his pants around his hips, preferring to dress like a street hoodlum. I will not even try to address his language; suffice to say he has given up on proper English and turned to street slang as his only form of communication.

As if all of this was not bad enough, Joseph was recently caught shoplifting. He claims it was an initiation into a gang, but I am not aware of where he would meet such people. We live in a small, affluent town that does not have an issue with gang-related activities – at least not that I know of, and I am a long-standing member of the Town Council. Thankfully, as one businessman to another, the owner of the store from which he stole agreed to settle the matter without going to the police. Joseph has had to pay for the item he stole out of his personal spending money, and as his punishment he must spend an hour a day sweeping up the parking lot of the business’ property for one full month. Upon hearing his punishment, Joseph accused me of “making him do n----- work”. I am afraid I lost my temper with him and accused him of being one. Now my son – Joseph’s father – believes I owe Joseph an apology for my hateful language.

I am truly torn about what I should do next. I grew up being called such words and worse, by both Black and White people. Even though it was a word that was ingrained in our Southern culture, I refused to use it and cringed every time my Mamma used that word in my direction. I would like to tell Joseph that I will apologize to him for calling him that word as soon as he proves to me that he is not ignorant and lazy, but I feel that an apology should not be conditional. What would you suggest?

Joseph’s Grandpa

Dear Joseph’s Grandpa:

It does seem that you are in a sticky spot. First, I would like to express my admiration of your work ethic, and your accomplishments in life. Overcoming adversity is no easy task, and it sounds like you were surrounded by it growing up in the Deep South. Your accomplishments in life, your position on your Town Council, and the respect you receive from your fellow businessmen paint a picture of a man who should be emulated, so I can see why you are upset with your use of a word so charged that I had to edit it out of your letter!

My larger concern is your grandson’s sudden overall shift in behavior upon reaching middle school, a time that correlates with the start of the tumultuous teenage years. You mentioned the name of the prestigious private school that Joseph attends [also edited out, for the sake of privacy] and the school has a reputation for multicultural diversity and tolerance, but it is possible that Joseph is in search of a cultural identity. By accusing you and his parents of trying to “turn him white” it is possible that Joseph is buying into popular culture and what he sees in the media.

I think that while Joseph is busy sweeping up the parking lot, you and his parents could look into finding a peer mentor to guide Joseph on the road to becoming a responsible young man. Perhaps if Joseph hears from someone close to his own age who has had to struggle to overcome meager beginnings, he will have a better appreciation for the privileges into which he has been born and the opportunities which he is currently wasting. Joseph need not change his style of dress or speech when among his friends, but his parents can demand that he respect them enough to follow the rules of what they consider proper dress and proper language – and since we are now on the subject of proper language…

I think you should apologize to Joseph for speaking out in anger the way you did, but temper that apology with a caution that if his attitude and grades do not improve, he may find himself doing such work for a living in just a few more years. While there is anything wrong with a service job, your grandson seems to believe that there is, and that will be the key to improving his attitude. I am reminded of an old clip from The Cosby Show in which Bill Cosby tells Malcolm Jamal Warner about how “Regular People” live. Perhaps it is time for Joseph’s father has the same conversation with him.


Ask Tazi! is ghostwritten by a human with a Bachelors of Arts in Communications. Tazi-Kat is not really a talking feline.

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