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  • Transcriber: Ivana Korom Reviewer: Krystian Aparta

  • The minute she said it,

  • the temperature in my classroom dropped.

  • My students are usually laser-focused on me,

  • but they shifted in their seats and looked away.

  • I'm a black woman

  • who teaches the histories of race and US slavery.

  • I'm aware that my social identity is always on display.

  • And my students are vulnerable too,

  • so I'm careful.

  • I try to anticipate what part of my lesson might go wrong.

  • But honestly,

  • I didn't even see this one coming.

  • None of my years of graduate school prepared me for what to do

  • when the N-word entered my classroom.

  • I was in my first year of teaching

  • when the student said the N-word in my class.

  • She was not calling anyone a name.

  • She was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

  • She came to class with her readings done,

  • she sat in the front row

  • and she was always on my team.

  • When she said it,

  • she was actually making a point about my lecture,

  • by quoting a line from a 1970s movie, a comedy,

  • that had two racist slurs.

  • One for people of Chinese descent

  • and the other the N-word.

  • As soon as she said it, I held up my hands, said, "Whoa, whoa."

  • But she assured me,

  • "It's a joke from 'Blazing Saddles,'"

  • and then she repeated it.

  • This all happened 10 years ago,

  • and how I handled it haunted me for a long time.

  • It wasn't the first time I thought about the word

  • in an academic setting.

  • I'm a professor of US history,

  • it's in a lot of the documents that I teach.

  • So I had to make a choice.

  • After consulting with someone I trusted,

  • I decided to never say it.

  • Not even to quote it.

  • But instead to use the euphemistic phrase, "the N-word."

  • Even this decision was complicated.

  • I didn't have tenure yet,

  • and I worried that senior colleagues

  • would think that by using the phrase I wasn't a serious scholar.

  • But saying the actual word still felt worse.

  • The incident in my classroom forced me to publicly reckon with the word.

  • The history, the violence,

  • but also --

  • The history, the violence, but also any time it was hurled at me,

  • spoken casually in front of me,

  • any time it rested on the tip of someone's tongue,

  • it all came flooding up in that moment,

  • right in front of my students.

  • And I had no idea what to do.

  • So I've come to call stories like mine points of encounter.

  • A point of encounter describes the moment you came face-to-face with the N-word.

  • If you've even been stumped or provoked by the word,

  • whether as the result of an awkward social situation,

  • an uncomfortable academic conversation,

  • something you heard in pop culture,

  • or if you've been called the slur,

  • or witnessed someone getting called the slur,

  • you have experienced a point of encounter.

  • And depending on who you are and how that moment goes down,

  • you might have a range of responses.

  • Could throw you off a little bit,

  • or it could be incredibly painful and humiliating.

  • I've had lots of these points of encounter in my life,

  • but one thing is true.

  • There's not a lot of space to talk about them.

  • That day in my classroom was pretty much like all of those times

  • I had an uninvited run-in with the N-word.

  • I froze.

  • Because the N-word is hard to talk about.

  • Part of the reason the N-word is so hard to talk about,

  • it's usually only discussed in one way,

  • as a figure of speech, we hear this all the time, right?

  • It's just a word.

  • The burning question that cycles through social media

  • is who can and cannot say it.

  • Black intellectual Ta-Nehisi Coates does a groundbreaking job

  • of defending the African American use of the word.

  • On the other hand, Wendy Kaminer,

  • a white freedom of speech advocate,

  • argues that if we don't all just come and say it,

  • we give the word power.

  • And a lot of people feel that way.

  • The Pew Center recently entered the debate.

  • In a survey called "Race in America 2019,"

  • researchers asked US adults if they thought is was OK

  • for a white person to say the N-word.

  • Seventy percent of all adults surveyed said "never."

  • And these debates are important.

  • But they really obscure something else.

  • They keep us from getting underneath to the real conversation.

  • Which is that the N-word is not just a word.

  • It's not neatly contained in a racist past,

  • a relic of slavery.

  • Fundamentally, the N-word is an idea disguised as a word:

  • that black people are intellectually,

  • biologically

  • and immutably inferior to white people.

  • And -- and I think this is the most important part --

  • that that inferiority means that the injustice we suffer

  • and inequality we endure

  • is essentially our own fault.

  • So, yes, it is ...

  • Speaking of the word only as racist spew

  • or as an obscenity in hip hop music

  • makes it sounds as if it's a disease

  • located in the American vocal cords

  • that can be snipped right out.

  • It's not, and it can't.

  • And I learned this from talking to my students.

  • So next time class met,

  • I apologized,

  • and I made an announcement.

  • I would have a new policy.

  • Students would see the word in my PowerPoints,

  • in film, in essays they read,

  • but we would never ever say the word out loud in class.

  • Nobody ever said it again.

  • But they didn't learn much either.

  • Afterwards, what bothered me most

  • was that I didn't even explain to students

  • why, of all the vile, problematic words in American English,

  • why this particular word had its own buffer,

  • the surrogate phrase "the N-word."

  • Most of my students,

  • many of them born in the late 1990s and afterwards,

  • didn't even know that the phrase "the N-word"

  • is a relatively new invention in American English.

  • When I was growing up, it didn't exist.

  • But in the late 1980s,

  • black college students, writers, intellectuals,

  • more and more started to talk about racist attacks against them.

  • But increasingly, when they told these stories,

  • they stopped using the word.

  • Instead, they reduced it to the initial N

  • and called it "the N-word."

  • They felt that every time the word was uttered

  • it opened up old wounds, so they refused to say it.

  • They knew their listeners would hear the actual word in their heads.

  • That wasn't the point.

  • The point was they didn't want to put the word in their own mouths

  • or into the air.

  • By doing this,

  • they made an entire nation start to second-guess themselves

  • about saying it.

  • This was such a radical move

  • that people are still mad about it.

  • Critics accuse those of us who use the phrase "the N-word,"

  • or people who become outraged,

  • you know, just because the word is said,

  • of being overprincipled,

  • politically correct

  • or, as I just read a couple of weeks ago in The New York Times,

  • "insufferably woke."

  • Right?

  • So I bought into this a little bit too,

  • which is why the next time I taught the course

  • I proposed a freedom of speech debate.

  • The N-word in academic spaces, for or against?

  • I was certain students would be eager

  • to debate who gets to say it and who doesn't.

  • But they weren't.

  • Instead ...

  • my students started confessing.

  • A white student from New Jersey talked about standing by

  • as a black kid at her school got bullied by this word.

  • She did nothing and years later still carried the guilt.

  • Another from Connecticut

  • talked about the pain of severing

  • a very close relationship with a family member,

  • because that family member refused to stop saying the word.

  • One of the most memorable stories came from a very quiet black student

  • from South Carolina.

  • She didn't understand all the fuss.

  • She said everyone at her school said the word.

  • She wasn't talking about kids calling each other names in the hall.

  • She explained that at her school

  • when teachers and administrators

  • became frustrated with an African American student,

  • they called that student the actual N-word.

  • She said it didn't bother her at all.

  • But then a couple of days later,

  • she came to visit me in my office hours and wept.

  • She thought she was immune.

  • She realized that she wasn't.

  • Over the last 10 years,

  • I have literally heard hundreds of these stories

  • from all kinds of people from all ages.

  • People in their 50s remembering stories from the second grade

  • and when they were six,

  • either calling people the word or being called the word,

  • but carrying that all these years around this word, you know.

  • And as I listened to people talk about their points of encounter,

  • the pattern that emerged for me as a teacher that I found most upsetting

  • is the single most fraught site

  • for these points of encounter

  • is the classroom.

  • Most US kids are going to meet the N-word in class.

  • One of the most assigned books in US high schools

  • is Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"

  • in which the word appears over 200 times.

  • And this isn't an indictment of "Huck Finn."

  • The word is in lots of US literature and history.

  • It's all over African American literature.

  • Yet I hear from students

  • that when the word is said during a lesson

  • without discussion and context,

  • it poisons the entire classroom environment.

  • The trust between student and teacher is broken.

  • Even so, many teachers,

  • often with the very best of intentions,

  • still say the N-word in class.

  • They want to show and emphasize the horrors of US racism,

  • so they rely on it for shock value.

  • Invoking it brings into stark relief

  • the ugliness of our nation's past.

  • But they forget

  • the ideas are alive and well in our cultural fabric.

  • The six-letter word is like a capsule of accumulated hurt.

  • Every time it is said, every time,

  • it releases into the atmosphere the hateful notion

  • that black people are less.

  • My black students tell me

  • that when the word is quoted or spoken in class,

  • they feel like a giant spotlight is shining on them.

  • One of my students told me

  • that his classmates were like bobbleheads,

  • turning to gauge his reaction.

  • A white student told me that in the eighth grade,

  • when they were learning "To Kill a Mockingbird"

  • and reading it out loud in class,

  • the student was stressed out

  • at the idea of having to read the word,

  • which the teacher insisted all students do,

  • that the student ended up spending most of the unit

  • hiding out in the bathroom.

  • This is serious.

  • Students across the country

  • talk about switching majors and dropping classes

  • because of poor teaching around the N-word.

  • The issue of faculty carelessly speaking the word

  • has reached such a fevered pitch,

  • it's led to protests at Princeton, Emory,

  • The New School,

  • Smith College, where I teach,

  • and Williams College,

  • where just recently students have boycotted the entire English Department

  • over it and other issues.

  • And these were just the cases that make the news.