When one is completely empty inside

Over on Facebook, I got a pointer to a blog post in Norwegian. Now, my Norwegian is hqiz; I studied intensively for 3 months before staffing a seminar for Klemmer and Associates in Asker, Norway, in November of 2008, and it helped me get around and interact with the students, but we’re talking survival. But it’s enough that I could understand the article, and with the help of online resources I worked my way through it enough to determine that it needs to be shared. What follows is my own effort at putting this moving post into English. It’s not perfect by any means, but I think it captures the spirit of what was said.

Tonight my daughter [1], age 7, told me that one of the seventh graders at her school had been bothering her. He pushed her and said something that made her sad.
– Well, what did he say? I asked.
– He called me  …n … he called me … a nigger,‘ [2] said my daughter, with downcast eyes.

My daughter never has downcast eyes. She tends to face the world with clenched fists and a huge smile, but now it looked as though she were ashamed of something. Something in me sank, not particularly because of the n-word, but because of my daughter’s uncharacteristic body language. But I replied in the same tone as I usually do when she talks about things that have happened; I tried to get all the facts on the table before I reacted.

– Do you know what “nigger” means? I asked.
– No, admitted my daughter. Then she took a breath and looked up at me:
– But I knew it meant something bad!
– How did you know that?
– Because he said it in such a mean,  teasing way. And because I was completely empty inside.

That description of being subjected to derogatory remarks was so spot-on that I felt pretty empty inside, too. But my daughter sat there and waited for an answer and an explanation. I took a deep breath and tried to explain. That “nigger” is a word that gets used on people with brown skin, who come from Africa or look like they come from Africa.

– Like  me? So he can SAY that? She widened her eyes and I felt like I had drowned a sack of kittens. I went on to say that word was common in the old days, but it is not used very often anymore. I explained that many people, especially adults and old people, use it without meaning anything bad by it, and without wanting to hurt anyone. They just have not kept up with the times.

But I told her that there are some people who use the word on purpose, to be mean, and that she probably was right, that this particular boy belongs to the latter group. These people tend to stand out.

And I said that no one has the right to call someone something that makes them completely empty inside, whatever that word means. But still, there are many people that say things just to make others sad. And sometimes people say things without wanting to make others sad, but they feel sad anyway.

We had a pretty long chat on the sofa, and another after that evening’s bedtime story session was finished. We discussed what is okay to say to others and what is not okay, and why. We talked about what we should say if we have accidentally made someone else feel empty inside, and what we should say if others are doing it to us. And whether it’s worse if someone we like and love says insensitive things to us. For this unknown boy was, after all, no one of consequence in my daughter’s life, but still, Mommy.

Actually, I had plans to use to use my personal development time this evening watching the zombie series and other fun things, but I ended up pondering a bit instead. Pretty loose and fragmented, I must confess, for mentally I’m dangerously close to zombie level right now. But let me think out loud anyway (after all it is my blog, so I can do what I want): Everyone agrees in principle that saying things to be mean is not allowed. The specific episode my daughter told me about obviously falls into that category. But people who say such things – where do they get this from? And where does one draw the line? There is no agreement.

Not so long ago I had a chat with some of my students at school. They have a pretty rough tone in the classroom, and several have responded that put-downs run pretty freely in the group. Among other things, it happens too often that something is characterized by derogatory prefixes such as Paki, whore- and homo- (for example, “homo music”, i.e. music that any talented guy with normal gender identity would consider worth listening to). The students themselves couldn’t get it through their heads that there was a problem here. We’re just kidding! We only say it to people who can take it, who are in on the joke!

It’s clear that kidding around with friends is fine. But the boundaries of humor are delicate and indistinct. The words we use have so many fine distinctions. One man’s fun banter can be another man’s nightmare. I didn’t mean any harm by it, we pout, as though that should make everything all better. By no means do we want to descend into an “I feel insulted” tyranny, where anyone’s negative feelings about some experience should determine the norm for everyone else’s behavior. But we do need to be crystal clear that every time we choose to say something hurtful (or refrain from saying something nice) to or about someone, we make a choice that affects everyone around us.

What about the person who is not in on the joke? The one who laughs uncomfortably, because he or she doesn’t want to be labeled killjoy or a first-class whiner? And what about the guy who happens to share the same classroom (or break room or dinner table) with two others “jokingly” using derogatory names for each other? He is not a direct recipient of Jesus Christ, you are so fucking gay, man! He’s not really involved at all, but sitting in the same room, he suddenly becomes completely empty inside. And no one says anything about it. So he’s completely empty, all alone.

It is never okay for anyone to be completely empty inside.


[1] The original Norwegian is “Lillesøster” (Little Sister)

[2] Nigger is the best translation available here. The original Norwegian is neger (negro), in this case used as a derogatory term, but it should be clearly stated here that the word doesn’t carry the immense cultural weight that it does here in the United States.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

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