Bring the N-Word Into the Classroom

The N-word. Whitewashing the latter half doesn't change how we think about it.

There’s this word that we can’t say. Papers have been written about it. Celebrities’ careers have been ruined for saying it. There’s continuous discourse about it in intellectual institutions where we dance around it. We talk about it without saying it. We chide one cultural group for using it, while others are berated for using it.

Obviously, I’m talking about the n-word.

I’ve been thinking and thinking about this. And I believe I’ve come up with a solution.

The n-word needs to have its own class in school where students can discuss it inside the boundaries of a safe and intellectual haven. Not just colleges either. I think it should start in high school. It’s a time when kids are way savvier about life than we give them credit for.

We are all supposed to hate this word. I’m supposed to hate this word because I’m a liberal and my daughter is brown-skinned.

I don’t really hate it though. Sure, it makes my blood broil and my skin crawl. But is that hate? I don’t think it’s hate. I think it’s discomfort. I think it’s embarrassment and fear. I think it’s anger. How can we hate a word?

We can hate what it means. We can hate what it reminds us of. But it’s just a word. Do we really hate the word itself? I don’t think so.

Collectively, as a society, I think we need to get to a place where we are allowed to say it. Not to use it. It should definitely be retired from commonplace vocabulary and conversation. But I don’t think we should try to scrub it from books, as some are doing with Huck Finn.

I don’t think we should punish people for simply using it. Focusing only on the word is just skirting the deeper and darker issue of racism. The word itself is not the feelings of anger and hate that run through the bodies and minds of racists. In fact, the use of the word in improper context, only brings to the surface the hidden feelings that people may not ever realize are existing inside their own minds and hearts.

Instead, we should educate inside the classroom.

Parents would be aware that their kids are taking the class, perhaps with a permission slip. Only teachers with special training would be allowed to teach the class.

And students would be able to discuss the origins, the meaning, and the hurtful uses we’ve seen over the course of history.

I think our country is begging for some fresh perspective on the use of this word.

There are stories all over the news. Recently a coach in Chicago was benched for writing the word on his Facebook page.

Later, he resigned because of continued death threats and harassment. While I would agree that this fellow is not an appropriate person to be a mentor to children, booting him out of the school doesn’t change the fact that he still seemingly a racist (although he denies that label) and probably simply cements any negative feelings he has towards minorities.

Another Chicago teacher attempted to discuss it with an intellectual perspective and was suspended for simply saying the word.

He had this to say as he left the school on suspension:

“It’s so sad — if we can’t discuss these issues, we’ll never be able to resolve them,” Brown said Thursday as he prepared to begin his suspension from the Hyde Park school just a few blocks from President Barack Obama’s Kenwood home.

He has since sued the school, saying his civil rights were violated.

I just don’t get how any of this is going to help our country heal and move towards a post-racist society. And while I have no idea if Lincoln Brown would have done a great job of having this discussion, I agree with him. We need to have a safe place to have these discussions without fear of repercussion for simply uttering a word, no matter the context.

When I was in journalism school at Wayne State University in Detroit, a required class for all journalism majors was one in which we discussed issues surrounding race, sex (gender) and culture. The point of the class was to teach us how to write with sensitivity about issues that we were not familiar with personally. One of our best classes was when our teacher asked us to bring in friends of different races. Our classroom filled with brown and white skins, gender differences and wide cultural gaps as we held a two-hour long discussion about race where nobody was allowed to get angry and we could ask any question we wanted to. A few people still got angry. But for the most part, it remained civil. Best of all, it brought to light so many questions and some really personal answers. It was fascinating and enlightening. It still brings tears to my eyes when I think about some lessons I learned in that class.

I think it’s the answer.

Simply white-washing this word doesn’t get rid of the issue, as you will read in this story where a bunch of kids spray-painted it on the wall outside of a Black History month exhibit in Petaluma, CA.

The fact that we, as adults, simply tell kids not to say it only sends the message that they shouldn’t say it around adults and white people, as you will read in this story.

And finally,

This editorial from The Atlantic, explains how our society is so overtly concerned with the words themselves and bashes the notion that simply uttering the word is the same as using hate speech.

Someday, perhaps, the idiocies of equating critical references to epithets with malicious uses of them will be self-evident. Someday we may conquer our phobias and stop compiling a lexicon of words that may be known only by their initials, if at all, like the sacred Name of God, or Voldemort. In the meantime, we have to persist in arguing the obvious: Words are not incantations; they do not cast spells. Instead, they take their meaning and power from the contexts in which they appear.


  1. Nicole says:

    March 5, 2012 at 1:58 pm

    Thanks for this thought-provoking post. You are right, having a facilitated dialogue around race is important. Assuming our kids know what we think when we don’t talk about what is uncomfortable is not the answer.

    • Martha says:

      March 6, 2012 at 10:56 am

      You are 100 percent correct Nicole! Kids can’t guess what we are thinking. It’s very important to talk about it if we want to get to the next level.

  2. says:

    March 5, 2012 at 4:40 pm

    So well said. I so disagreed with removing the word from Huck Finn. It is a hurtful word with a hurtful history but forgetting it or “whitewashing” as you said, we can’t learn from it. All that said, I have a hard time discussing the word. As a white Southerner, I feel shame every time I hear it. Thank you for sharing your perspective. You said words that needed to be said!


    • Martha says:

      March 6, 2012 at 10:57 am

      Thanks Traci! Yes, I feel shame too, as someone who has southern roots. But if we just keep remembering that it was the past and we can help this conversation by sharing our feelings and experiences.

  3. George says:

    March 5, 2012 at 6:07 pm

    Great commentary, M! Since the online world became a major outlet for people’s private thoughts to be made public, I’ve seen “nigger” used incessantly, along with countless other slurs against “the others.”

    I’ve made comments about You Tube videos, for instance, in threads where race-bashing idiocy comprises 90% of the “discussion” and I usually go for a “can’t we all just get along” type of approach in which I don’t condemn the racists but instead try to point out some alternative ways of seeing things. Subsequently I get private messages with such lovely comments as “I’ll be glad to see the day when you’re hanging from a tree” or, just yesterday, this gem from a young man who obviously mistook my race: “Negroes are good at making certain types of Music that I don’t listen too and they are also good at sports. There are a lot of negroes in hollywood and what not. Othere then that you aren’t good for much else. Now you see why you negroes suck?”

    The fact that the latter comment used the word “Negroes” scarcely softens the meaning; it only cloaks it in a less jarring tone, which is kind of creepy.

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