I still remember the very first time I was called the N-word. It was 1988 or so, and I was in third grade. My classmate, a poor white girl named Vicki, chose to punctuate the end of a childhood spat by yelling, “You DIRTY NIGGER!” Seven- or 8-year-old me was bewildered. And silent. I had never heard that word used that way before. I didn’t know what it meant. Yet I felt its force and its vitriolic intent viscerally.

Later that evening, I inched close to my mom in the kitchen as she was putting dinner on, and asked, “What does the word ‘nigger’ mean?” Before she answered with words, I simply registered pain on her face. In hindsight, I understand that pain to be the pain of a parent confronting the inevitable reach of other people’s issues from which you cannot protect your child. It was also the pain of a black parent confronting the inevitability of a child’s first encounter with racism. After asking why I wanted to know, she told me simply, “It means an ignorant person.”