Editor’s Note: This article contains a racist term quoted in a poem.
As a Black educator, every year, and I mean every single year, I am asked by a teacher, usually racially white, what they should do about students saying the n-word.
If the white teacher has at least done a little research before asking me this question, the teacher normally tells me some version of this:
“I heard that Black people have reclaimed the n-word and use it as a sign of love.”
Internally, I sigh deeply because I already know that the quick answer they want to solve this problem will not be quick.
If they go that route, I remind them that Black people are not a monolith, and all Black people don’t approve of using the word. There have been many research studies conducted on this topic.
I always say, whether the student is Black or not, “The n-word is not a word for school.”
We disapprove of students using profanity; the n-word is profane language in the school setting.
Some parents curse at their children and allow them to curse freely at home. At home, parents make the rules, and at school, educators make the rules. Even if a student retorts with, “I say it at home,” the response should be the same.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of “Between the World and Me,” has discussed this subject. While speaking at a high school, a student asked what she should do when she hears her friends (presumably non-Black) use the n-word and even say it when the word is in a song. Coates explained that context matters for words.
This was the same argument I used when dealing with an issue between Black and Latino students as a school administrator. For years, African American and African immigrant families had complained about Latino students calling their children the n-word, and nothing was done. The parents said they were told the Latino students were English learners and didn’t understand what they were saying.
As a Black administrator, I was asked to participate in a meeting with the teacher whose class it happened in, two Black students, and their parents. The Latino students and their families decided not to participate in the meeting. I sat there as the teacher told the parents the Latino students didn’t know what they were saying. The rage rising in the Black parents’ bodies was palpable. I was asked to comment. I had the white teacher sitting there, not seeing the issue, and the Black parents were upset. I wondered how to address this in a way that didn’t make the teacher think I was siding with the parents because I was Black.
I started by sharing that I was an English teacher for years and that if students repeatedly use the word in context, they know what it means. I apologized for the family's experience over the years, even though I was new that year. I stated consequences would be given for further incidents. The incidents stopped.
Let’s say all the students were Black, and the context was positive. I would explain that even if it is a positive context, hearing the words causes harm to others.
The least we can do as human beings is not to cause harm.
At this point, dots may be connecting, and some may wonder how I handled the n-word in literature. I did mention I was an English teacher. I don’t read the word. I have debated this with English teachers since I entered the education profession. It is not necessary for my educational goal.
One poem I like to read is Countee Cullen’s poem “Incident.” Which I have included below.
(For Eric Walrond)
Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.
Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, “Nigger.”
I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.
When I used this poem, we looked at the rhyme and the rhyme scheme. Additionally, we discussed the meaning and connected it to other texts we read and current events. The students all had the poem in front of them. I can read this entire poem without saying the word, and the students understand the meaning and the academic concepts I am teaching.
Earlier this school year, a school leader in Indianapolis was fired for using the n-word, and earlier this month, a teacher was fired after getting caught on film using the word. Each incident has its own implications and considerations.
On May 31, WFYI reported that Nathan Tuttle had filed a tort claim and federal discrimination suit for wrongful termination after the board fired him for using the n-word. The article states, “Tuttle countered in the claim and EEOC complaint that he repeated the slur while disciplining a student who had used it, but did not direct the slur at a student.” What I find the most interesting in this article is that it is noted that Tuttle, a white man, is the father of a Black boy, whom he adopted. Although Tuttle states he only repeated the word, it is not necessary to say a word to get students not to say it or to correct them when using it in school.
A few years ago, I shared my journey with infertility. At one point, my husband and I were on the adoption list for two years. One of the classes we had to take was about cross-cultural adoptions and the importance of understanding that love isn’t enough. A parent has to actively aim to do no harm.
It is not clear to me why a white parent of a Black child would even think it was okay to repeat the word even while disciplining.
The second incident mentioned above took place in Springfield, Missouri. A 15-year-old student, Mary Walton, was suspended from Glendale High School for three days after recording a white teacher freely using the n-word in a rant. Although this evidence was used to terminate the teacher, the student was punished because of a rule in the handbook about using cell phones to record. Now, the student gets harmed for hearing a teacher repeatedly say the n-word and for being punished by providing the evidence needed for the termination. This sends a clear message to students that it might be better to be quiet than to report harmful incidents.
I’m not naive. The n-word is not going away. If you don’t believe me, take a look back at 2007 when the NAACP buried the n-word (they even had a casket). Symbolic actions aren’t helpful. It is similar to doing a land acknowledgment for the Indigenous peoples who live on the land without taking any action to support them. We must move towards better policies, especially those that don’t punish students for reporting n-word usage.
In most school handbooks, there is a section about offensive language. This includes profanity and slurs. However, school districts must go further and have policies and procedures for slurs, including the n-word. The Boston Public Schools Office of Equity and Office of Opportunity Gaps provided a document called “Guidelines for the Use of Offensive Terms in the Classroom.” A couple of suggested ground rules included in the document for the n-word are:
- Offensive terms will never be used in the classroom under any circumstances.
- While the word [slur for African-Americans] appears in the text we are reading, we will not say the full word in class, and instead, will use the term, “the n-word.”
When students or staff fail to follow the policies, the consequences should be swift and clear. There should also be an opportunity for restoration. A teacher may get fired for n-word usage; however, a student may get suspended and return to the school setting. Suspension with no coaching or support for return could result in the student causing harm or those who were harmed not feeling safe.
Schools are tasked with helping our students become people who can craft a better future. If we are going to be culturally responsive and care about students' social-emotional wellness, we must insist the n-word is not a word for school.