Beaner

My son and his friend do their homework together on Tuesdays. A couple of weeks ago they were in the dining room pulling their notebooks from their backpacks and settling in. I was in the kitchen preparing a snack. I tried not be alarmed when I realized they were discussing racial slurs.
     
“Ricer,” my son’s friend Alex, the son of my husband’s oldest friend in America, and fellow Mexican national said, “why do they call them that?”

“I guess it’s because they eat so much rice,” my son said back. They were both chuckling the way eleven year olds do when something that they know shouldn’t be funny makes them laugh.

I listened more before intervening with some annoying worried parent reaction. It seemed they were talking about something they heard in school.

I carried a bowl of chips and string cheese into the dining room.

“It’s like the word beaner,” I said.

“Oh, yeah, Beaner, that’s what they call us,” Alex said.

“Because we eat so many beans. Luis laughed more confidently this time.

“Oh,” Alex said, “I always thought it was because we wear so many beanie hats.”

Both my husband and Alex’s dad are bald or balding and they both wear beanie hats just like many Mexican men in America do or like vato locos in the movies.

All three of us doubled over with laughter.

In his innocent but analytical way, Alex concluded that it made more sense that Mexicans are sometimes referred to as beaners because we eat a lot of beans. I reminded them how not that long ago, like when my mom was growing up, that such a slur was really hurtful, that it wasn’t a nice thing to call somebody, even though it seems funny now, and even though it’s a slur, like ricer, that has actually been created from fact. Mexicans eat beans; beans are a staple of Mexican cuisine.

“Just don’t call anyone ricer,” I said. “Even if it seems a little funny.”

“What do they call white people,” my son asked.

“Cracker,” I couldn’t help wincing when I said it.

I was thinking gabacho, but I kept it to myself.

“Oh, yeah, cracker,” my son said, “That make sense because they eat crackers and crackers are white.” Of course, my son eats crackers too.

This discussion got me thinking about racial slurs and how they’re created and their impact and how the impact can change over time. It seems, racial slurs can be broken down into a variety of categories, though not neatly. Two categories that I could think of readily are slurs whose sounds are particularly ugly or harsh (I won’t be listing them here; I’ll let you do that in your own head), and there are those racial slurs created from cultural aspects or food. Those created from religious aspects of one’s culture or ethnicity can smack pretty hard, like rag head, but these days those from food, for young people it seems, don’t: beaner, ricer, cracker — so much. Of course then there are those slurs that people of color use toward each other that fall into the food category, words like oreo or apple, words that discourage community members from becoming too white, too distant from the community — those smack hard too.

But whether Alex thought our racial slur, ‘beaner,’ came from food or hats, I know that he and my son, middle-schoolers, are trying to figure it all out, even using the words themselves or repeating racist jokes or references that they’ve seen make others laugh, maybe in order to learn how far they can go since a word like beaner makes them laugh — even if its to laugh a bit uncomfortably. Then I’ve noticed other young people, my students, wince, or stutter, or turn red when saying the word Mexican, as if the word Mexican itself is a racial slur but not Chinese or Japanese. Of course this has to do with  the term illegal and the picture we now get in our heads when we think of an immigrant — the picture of a Mexican looking dude in worn jeans, a thin jacket and a baseball hat standing on a corner somewhere looking for work. Clearly, when a slur has the power to reduce us to comedy and the accurate version of the slur, Mexican, creates a distinct narrow/inaccurate image in our heads, or makes us wince and stutter, we all still have a lot to figure out.

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