Feb 26, 2012

The N-word in Education

Image credit: Flickr/DJOtaku

A white coach in suburban Chicago posts a derogatory comment about Whitney Houston's death on Facebook and is suspended for a year. He says he didn't know he was writing that word. He says he only shares Facebook with friends and family, but now everyone knows he wrote it. He says that some of his best friends are black.  What did he write that stirred up all this controversy? "I'm so sick of reading about this dumb stupid N----- Whitney Houston."

The parent of a former player saw his comment and spread it around. She wonders if he felt that way about her black son when he played on the team...
A white teacher gets suspended in a Chicago school when he begins a discussion about the N-word in his class. The teacher, Lincoln Brown, says that he intercepted a note that was being passed in class. The note had rap lyrics written on it that used the N-word and he thought it was a "teachable moment"---a great time to talk about the history of that word and how it relates the book Huckleberry Finn.  While in the midst of this discussion, his principal did a walk-through and deemed the conversation inappropriate. Lincoln Brown was suspended from teaching, and is now suing the principal for violating his 1st and 5th amendment rights.

According to a Sun Times piece, in class Mr. Brown said: “can anyone explain to me why blacks can call each other a n*****, and not get mad, but when whites do it, blacks get angry.” Brown allowed three students to answer the question.

Mr. Brown's students were 6th graders and mostly black. The principal who suspended him is also black.
Both of these stories stirred up a lot of conversation. Comments on each story show that the n-word is still one of the most charged and powerful words in the American English lexicon. An interesting piece by Nick Chiles (a black man)  on My Brown Baby  argues that Mr. Brown shouldn't suspended because he is opening up a much needed discussion on race. If we don't talk about it, how do we progress towards becoming a multiracial / "post racial" society?

In my mind, the first story is about a stereotypical racist--how do you not know that you typed the n-word in your own Facebook status???  Who uses that word by accident and then follows it up with the cliche excuse "some of my best friends are black?"  But the second one...that one really gets me thinking. It makes me think a lot because the question Mr. Brown poses in class about rap music's use of the n-word is one that my own students ask all the time: "Why is it okay for them, but not for us?" I try to explain the idea of "reclaiming a word," the way the feminist movement tries to reclaim the word "bitch" turning it around to make it a positive. But for me, that whole explanation doesn't work...because no matter how many women reclaim the word "bitch", given a certain context it still hurts to hear it applied. The n-word is no different. No matter how many rappers try to reclaim it and make it their own, it still hurts when a white person says it--no matter how well-intentioned that white person may be. I think that's what Mr. Brown needs to realize. No matter what the motivation for his conversation, now matter how well-intentioned he may be, that word hurts.

As a teacher and a believer in the power of empathy, I am always looking for a way to help my students understand things from a different perspective. I have never been able to find a way to explain the pain caused by the n-word. There really is no way to explain to a white person what a degrading word it is...but the closest to a good explanation I've ever seen comes in the form of humor. White comedian Louis CK openly (and hilariously) discusses his skin privilege, and the fact that there is really nothing that anyone can say that hurts him because of that privilege.

Warning--Louis CK uses crude language

How do you feel about these stories? Is it appropriate to discuss the n-word in a classroom? If so, what's the best way to do it? If not, then how should teachers address questions from their students or address situations like the one Mr. Brown encountered with a student passing a note that included the n-word in rap lyrics?


  1. Great post Jenn!  I think Mr. Brown may have been trying to have the kids realize through an open discussion why the word is never appropriate.  I do not know if it is appropriate to discuss or not.  I personally feel that open discussions can be a good thing.    Now the coach.... he was clearly WAY out of LINE and I understand him being suspended.  If I was the child's mother who found the comment on facebook, I'd feel the same way and wonder the same question.

    Curious as to what others have to say.

  2. I work in a predominantly white school. We do openly discuss the use of derogatory words (n-----, f--, etc.). We discuss how tone and context give words power. A word itself is nothing, but history and other factors can make a word inflammatory and unacceptable. Whether you spell it nigger or nigga, it's usually meant derogatorily. Blacks using the word just keeps it alive and creates a double-standard. It's also not okay for women to call each other bitch, when we won't let men use the word. With about 600,000 words in the English language, can we not find more positive terms to utilize? We need to use words to build bridges between communities--not drop atomic word bombs on them. The n-word, I think, will always be hurtful because we continue to try to hurt.

  3. How do we teach our children the destructive and dangerous nature of language if we steer clear of the history behind the usage of such a horrible word? Our son's nine and still hasn't heard it. Am I hurting him by not teaching him how wrong it is use that kind of language or wait until he hears it for the first time? It hurts everytime I hear it used, no matter the skin color of the person using it, or if it's being used in jest. Educators bear an extra burden of responsibility to teach and fill in the cracks of what's not being taught at home, unfortunately.

  4. ... I wasn't done ...

    My concern surrounding how to address it in the classroom is coming up with a standard that shows empathy, respect and dignity to the people who've been the most hurt by it through history.

    Great post, Jen.

  5. Difficult question here. I am not sure how many mixed races have in my blood but they are more than 3 including black. It's true that it hurts when someone call us niger, but the thing is that it shouldn't hurt us. We should feel proud of it. Black is a beautiful skin color, and we  have tons of wonderful qualities that white people will never have. I think the problem is that white people think that they are superior and we let them believe it.

  6. Is it appropriate to discuss the n-word in a classroom? In social studies, English or sociology class the topic should be discussed. Difficult & controversial topics should be discussed because those are the topics that cause conflicts in life if not dealt with compassionately.   

    If so, what's the best way to do it? 
    There should be a diversity expert teaching the topic or a special credential that the teacher should have to make sure they are teaching the topic with sensitivity. For example, my sociology teacher used the word 'illegal' to describe undocumented workers. That is insensitive, dehumanizing and promotes discrimination against many agricultural workers and blue collar workers in the U.S. 

  7. Thanks for stopping by, Tara! I think open discussions can be a good thing, too. I just don't know how we decide who should lead them, when the right time is to have them, and if 6th grade is the best age for such a discussion. And does it matter what skin color the teacher has? Would the principal have felt differently if it was a black teacher? I dunno. Very hard to figure out. I've had "teachable moments" about other things and you don't want them to pass you by. But I am not sure about this discussion. I'd be curious to hear what the kids thought of the whole thing...and their parents.

  8. Thanks for your comment Alexandara! I agree: black is beautiful. There will soon come a day where white people will be in the minority, and forced to see themselves differently. I never understand why people can't all just share the privilege--of being alive and human.

  9. I think you're right about particular classes/subjects lending themselves to this type of discussion, Glenn. I know that many school districts require their staff to receive diversity training; but I read a blog written by a teacher in Los Angeles who complains regularly about those inservices and how they just gloss over cultures very minimally. She says it is not enough. I really like your idea of a diversity expert teaching the topic, or requiring a credential for teaching about diversity. Wonder if any school district or state would do it? AZ should be forced to...but that's another story. Thanks for your comment!

  10. "The n-word, I think, will always be hurtful because we continue to try to hurt."---that really is the heart of the matter right there. We keep on feeling the need to put each other down, and those put-downs hurt. I agree with you 100%: when there are so many words to choose from, why do we continue to choose those that hurt the most?  I really appreciate your comment, and the work you do with your students in discussing the power of words.

  11. Ezzy, it's a fine line isn't it? We want to protect our children from hatred and negativity, but we need to prepare them for reality. I didn't think that any of my children had ever heard the n-word, really. But then my husband said that someone hollered it at him when he was getting the mail from our mailbox last week, and they definitely heard. They know that it is a hurtful word, but they learned from my husband how to render it powerless because he looked at the passing car and hollered, "Is that all you got???" Then he laughed and walked away.  To be honest, I've never heard anyone call him that before and we'd never talked about it until after I wrote this post. Seeing as it just happened, I think the time is ripe to talk to my kids.  

    I agree--if we were to start teaching about the history of such hurtful language, we need to make sure we have the right people and the right methods in place for that teaching. Otherwise we risk more damage... 

    Thanks for your comment, amiga!

  12. I love Louis CK! That is so funny and true. Have you seen the bit where he uses the n-word about the white coffee barista? Even though I thought it was hilarious, I still feel conflicted about laughing at it.  I am firmly in the camp that talking about the n-word in school is a good idea, as painful as it might be. Problem is, too many parents who will be so uncomfortable with it, that it might be very difficult to implement into a curriculum. Also, I think that teachers would have to have some really specific training. I think that it could head into some really murky waters to just open season on any teacher being allowed to openly discuss it.

  13. I love Louis CK and I love your blog!

  14. I have seen that bit about the white barista and I share your inner conflict...it is soooo funny and yet so absolutely shameful! I'm never sure if I'm laughing because it's funny or if I'm laughing because it makes me so uncomfortable. 

    Talking about it in schools is definitely entering murky waters. I just read a story in my local paper about a teacher using the n-word in the hallway at a school, and now the father of a biracial kid is suing the district. Apparently, the kid was using gay slurs toward another student, and she stopped him and asked how he'd feel if someone called him a lazy n----. We definitely would need some sort of training to occur before that words gets thrown around like that. It's another example of good intentions that fail miserably. Thanks for your comment, Martha!


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