“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” It makes sense but in practice things do not work out like that.
My mother used to tell me that. So when whites at school called me racist names, I told myself that saying. But like the rest of her kumbaya anti-racism, it did not work. Even when you get older and understand how cruel and narrow-minded and racist people can be, the names are still there in your head. The wounds from the fights I got into healed in a few days and are long forgotten, but not the names.
Tyra Banks, who was once one of the highest paid models in the world, to this day rarely wears her hair in a natural style. As senseless as it may sound to some, it goes back to the names white girls used to call her at school:
It sticks with us as adults. It sticks with us for ever. I was called the nappy-headed girl … The girls at school had straight, long hair. I didn’t have hair like them. I didn’t feel as beautiful as them. As an adult, yes, I know that’s wrong now but there is still something embedded in me because I heard it over and over and over again as a child. As a child I heard that over and over and over again. So no matter how much of an adult I am now and how clear-thinking I am, I still have to fight that. I still have to fight that.
The story “The Ugly Duckling” has a happy ending, but life is not quite that simple, not even for world-famous supermodels. You hear something enough times a part of you begins to believe it, especially when you are young.
That saying also misleads the name-callers: while they most certainly do mean to hurt you and cut you down, they think it will have no lasting effect. Because it does not leave a mark that anyone can see.
It also misleads them into thinking racist jokes are harmless: Ha, ha, lighten up, it’s just a joke. Wrong. Not only are they at someone’s expense and so just plain mean, but they help to strengthen racist stereotypes.
When you get older the names pretty much stop, but unfortunately nothing in American culture supports the idea that it is because white people become less racist when they grow up. It seems they merely become more polite.
Knowing my readership I must point out that, yes, of course, not just people of colour get called names. And yes, they hurt just as much when applied to a white person. But please keep in mind that not being white is not a choice, it cannot be hidden, it cannot be changed and, even worse, the racism that underlies the names goes way beyond childhood.
The good news, though, is that if words can hurt they can also heal.