"Hey, Pink Toe!" I knew the boisterous black man with the gravel voice was talking to me. I was the only white person on the crowded 5 bouncing through North Minneapolis, and he had already spent a good deal of our ride simultaneously taunting me and flirting, and rapping loudly to the entertained travellers about the joys of smoking pot. He told the young woman sitting next to him that he was a stand up comic, and judging from the response he received from our fellow bus riders as he sang his pot poetry, he was a pretty good one. Seeing my stop ahead, I rang the bell and was weaving my way toward the front of the bus.
"Pink Toe!" he shouted at me. This time I turned around and acknowledged him. "You dropped something."
I looked behind me on the murky floor. Winter on the bus is a messy business. But I saw nothing.
"You dropped something!" he told me again. I shrugged my shoulders as the bus brakes squeaked. He put his hands to his chest and said mockingly, "My heart." I smiled as the riders laughed with him at me, and gratefully leaped off the bus into the cold.
His words remained with me. Pink Toe emits such a banal tone that it hardly registers as offensive.
I remembered Christmas time when my mom would put out huge bowls of in-shell nuts. The silver nutcrackers and matching picks were the first kitchen gadgets I was allowed to use, and likely the reason I loved nuts so much. I walked into the kitchen where my mom seemed always to stand over the sink washing dishes or preparing our meals. "Want to know my favorite nut?" I asked her. Proud and excited to have memorized the names for each one, I began listing them. "I like almonds, walnuts, and pecans. But my favorite nut is the N-word toe." Only I didn't say N-word. I said THE word.
My mother spun around in shock but she calmly asked, "Where did you hear that word?"
"Grandpa taught me!" I was still proud, but confusion crept in. Why would the name of a nut make my mom so upset?
I don't recall exactly how my mom navigated through that teachable moment. How do you tell your young child that the man she loves more than anyone else has taught her a terrible word? How do you explain racism to a child whose only brush with non-white people is through TV shows like Sesame Street, Star Trek, and Julia, or the Jackson 5 poster hanging on her big sister's wall? Whatever she said, I understood from that moment that prejudice and racism were wrong, but that I could still love my grandpa in spite of his beliefs and language (that last lesson is still a tough truth to reconcile). I never heard my grandpa speak that word again, and I've always wondered if my mom used that event as a teachable moment for my grandpa as well.
T's high school was recently featured on 60 Minutes, as two English teachers expressed their views about the recent publication of Huckleberry Finn minus the N-word. One teacher says the word in class and uses it as a teachable moment. The other doesn't. I side with Mark Twain. As we watched 60 Minutes, I thought about the words we use to hurt each other and the power we give those words when we don't confront them directly. There is a difference between spewing derogatory words and reading text that demonstrates why those words are derogatory. Sugarcoating history is only a lesson in dishonesty.