Students’ Use of the N-Word: It’s Not Always Black or White

By Glenda Cohen

Forum on use of the n-word at the Framingham Community Baptist Church. From left: Edie Bassett, Angela Kalissa, Mira Donaldson, Christopher Finan, Glenda Cohen, Gloria Pascual. Photo: Zane Razzaq (Metro West Daily News)

As a veteran high school teacher who identifies as white, I felt I was on firm footing all of these years by having a zero tolerance approach to students using the n-word. My rule: if you say that word in my class or in the hall, it’s hate speech, and there would be serious consequences resulting in suspension.

Because my students are recent immigrants, they do not have the historical background knowledge as to why the n-word is unacceptable. While growing up in their countries, they have been exposed to American culture through movies and music that ubiquitously uses the word. Consequently, when they arrive in the U.S., they think that it is an acceptable part of our vernacular.

In class, when we encounter the word in works of literature such as Of Mice and Men, I grab the teachable moment and explain why the word is offensive and should never be used. One of the best resources on the subject that I’ve found is an episode of the CBS News program 60 Minutes entitled “Huckleberry Finn and the N-Word.” But even after all of our discussions, some students balk, responding, “I hear it all the time. Black kids use it, so why can’t I?” Each time, my response is absolute: it is never acceptable for anyone to say the n-word, no matter what.

Recently, however, my thinking has been challenged. After a spate of racist incidents in my school and community, a group of black students hosted panel discussions to share their feelings about the use of the n-word, and what they expected from teachers and administrators in the aftermath. What I heard from some students of color, their parents, and other teachers surprised me; it has made me realize that using the n-word is far more complicated and nuanced than I had previously believed.

While all students of color agreed that the n-word was offensive when coming from other kids who aren’t black, there was a divide as to whether it was ok for them to use it with each other. “We’re reclaiming the word to be our own, so no white person gets to tell me if and when I can use it,” said a male student whose family was originally from the Congo. But, another black female student felt differently: “Not in my class, not in my school,” she said.

Parents also voiced concern that if a zero-tolerance policy were enforced, it would be their young, black sons who would pay the price if they used it as a term of familarity with their friends. As a white teacher, I am afraid that expecting other white teachers to make nuanced decisions about the contextual use of the n-word is unfair to both teachers and students alike.

I’m proud that the students in my school started these crucial conversations about using a word that is so explosive and fraught with meaning that we no longer even spell it out . And what I’ve learned is that there are no easy answers. We have a lot more work to do as far as teaching kids the historical origins of the n-word, and the real-life hurt that it causes to black people today. And white people like me need to listen to what kids and parents are saying and respect their opinions – not just impose our own, as I did with my belief that zero tolerance is the only acceptable policy. I learned that sometimes when we think we are doing the right thing by prohibiting the use of the n-word in order to protect students, there may also be unintended consequences that hurt them. I’ve been a teacher for a long time, but I’ve still got a lot to learn about the complex role that race plays in our schools.

What are your thoughts about students’ use of the n-word? Click on this post under the heading Recent Posts and scroll to the end to leave a comment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *