English subtítols

← Why it's so hard to talk about the N-word

Obtén el codi d'incrustació
27 llengües

Showing Revision 7 created 03/12/2020 by Erin Gregory.

  1. The minute she said it,
  2. the temperature in my classroom dropped.
  3. My students are usually
    laser-focused on me,
  4. but they shifted in their seats
    and looked away.
  5. I'm a black woman

  6. who teaches the histories
    of race and US slavery.
  7. I'm aware that my social identity
    is always on display.
  8. And my students are vulnerable too,
  9. so I'm careful.
  10. I try to anticipate
    what part of my lesson might go wrong.
  11. But honestly,
  12. I didn't even see this one coming.
  13. None of my years of graduate school
    prepared me for what to do
  14. when the N-word entered my classroom.
  15. I was in my first year of teaching

  16. when the student said
    the N-word in my class.
  17. She was not calling anyone a name.
  18. She was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.
  19. She came to class with her readings done,
  20. she sat in the front row
  21. and she was always on my team.
  22. When she said it,
  23. she was actually making a point
    about my lecture,
  24. by quoting a line from a 1970s
    movie, a comedy,
  25. that had two racist slurs.
  26. One for people of Chinese descent
  27. and the other the N-word.
  28. As soon as she said it,
    I held up my hands, said, "Whoa, whoa."
  29. But she assured me,
  30. "It's a joke from 'Blazing Saddles,'"
  31. and then she repeated it.
  32. This all happened 10 years ago,

  33. and how I handled it
    haunted me for a long time.
  34. It wasn't the first time
    I thought about the word
  35. in an academic setting.
  36. I'm a professor of US history,
  37. it's in a lot
    of the documents that I teach.
  38. So I had to make a choice.
  39. After consulting with someone I trusted,
  40. I decided to never say it.
  41. Not even to quote it.
  42. But instead to use
    the euphemistic phrase, "the N-word."
  43. Even this decision was complicated.
  44. I didn't have tenure yet,
  45. and I worried that senior colleagues
  46. would think that by using the phrase
    I wasn't a serious scholar.
  47. But saying the actual word
    still felt worse.
  48. The incident in my classroom forced me
    to publicly reckon with the word.

  49. The history, the violence,
  50. but also --
  51. The history, the violence,
    but also any time it was hurled at me,
  52. spoken casually in front of me,
  53. any time it rested on the tip
    of someone's tongue,
  54. it all came flooding up in that moment,
  55. right in front of my students.
  56. And I had no idea what to do.
  57. So I've come to call stories like mine
    points of encounter.

  58. A point of encounter describes the moment
    you came face-to-face with the N-word.
  59. If you've even been stumped
    or provoked by the word,
  60. whether as the result
    of an awkward social situation,
  61. an uncomfortable academic conversation,
  62. something you heard in pop culture,
  63. or if you've been called the slur,
  64. or witnessed someone
    getting called the slur,
  65. you have experienced a point of encounter.
  66. And depending on who you are
    and how that moment goes down,
  67. you might have a range of responses.
  68. Could throw you off a little bit,
  69. or it could be incredibly
    painful and humiliating.
  70. I've had lots of these
    points of encounter in my life,
  71. but one thing is true.
  72. There's not a lot of space
    to talk about them.
  73. That day in my classroom
    was pretty much like all of those times

  74. I had an uninvited run-in with the N-word.
  75. I froze.
  76. Because the N-word is hard to talk about.
  77. Part of the reason the N-word
    is so hard to talk about,
  78. it's usually only discussed in one way,
  79. as a figure of speech,
    we hear this all the time, right?
  80. It's just a word.
  81. The burning question that cycles
    through social media
  82. is who can and cannot say it.
  83. Black intellectual Ta-Nehisi Coates
    does a groundbreaking job
  84. of defending the African American
    use of the word.
  85. On the other hand, Wendy Kaminer,
  86. a white freedom of speech advocate,
  87. argues that if we don't all
    just come and say it,
  88. we give the word power.
  89. And a lot of people feel that way.
  90. The Pew Center recently
    entered the debate.
  91. In a survey called "Race in America 2019,"
  92. researchers asked US adults
    if they thought is was OK
  93. for a white person to say the N-word.
  94. Seventy percent of all
    adults surveyed said "never."
  95. And these debates are important.

  96. But they really obscure something else.
  97. They keep us from getting underneath
    to the real conversation.
  98. Which is that the N-word
    is not just a word.
  99. It's not neatly contained
    in a racist past,
  100. a relic of slavery.
  101. Fundamentally, the N-word
    is an idea disguised as a word:
  102. that black people are intellectually,
  103. biologically
  104. and immutably inferior to white people.
  105. And -- and I think
    this is the most important part --
  106. that that inferiority means
    that the injustice we suffer
  107. and inequality we endure
  108. is essentially our own fault.
  109. So, yes, it is ...
  110. Speaking of the word only as racist spew

  111. or as an obscenity in hip hop music
  112. makes it sounds as if it's a disease
  113. located in the American vocal cords
  114. that can be snipped right out.
  115. It's not, and it can't.
  116. And I learned this
    from talking to my students.
  117. So next time class met,

  118. I apologized,
  119. and I made an announcement.
  120. I would have a new policy.
  121. Students would see the word
    in my PowerPoints,
  122. in film, in essays they read,
  123. but we would never ever
    say the word out loud in class.
  124. Nobody ever said it again.
  125. But they didn't learn much either.
  126. Afterwards, what bothered me most
  127. was that I didn't even explain to students
  128. why, of all the vile, problematic words
    in American English,
  129. why this particular word
    had its own buffer,
  130. the surrogate phrase "the N-word."
  131. Most of my students,

  132. many of them born
    in the late 1990s and afterwards,
  133. didn't even know
    that the phrase "the N-word"
  134. is a relatively new invention
    in American English.
  135. When I was growing up, it didn't exist.
  136. But in the late 1980s,
  137. black college students,
    writers, intellectuals,
  138. more and more started to talk about
    racist attacks against them.
  139. But increasingly,
    when they told these stories,
  140. they stopped using the word.
  141. Instead, they reduced it to the initial N
  142. and called it "the N-word."
  143. They felt that every time
    the word was uttered
  144. it opened up old wounds,
    so they refused to say it.
  145. They knew their listeners would hear
    the actual word in their heads.
  146. That wasn't the point.
  147. The point was they didn't want
    to put the word in their own mouths
  148. or into the air.
  149. By doing this,
  150. they made an entire nation
    start to second-guess themselves
  151. about saying it.
  152. This was such a radical move
  153. that people are still mad about it.
  154. Critics accuse those of us
    who use the phrase "the N-word,"
  155. or people who become outraged,
  156. you know, just because the word is said,
  157. of being overprincipled,
  158. politically correct
  159. or, as I just read a couple of weeks ago
    in The New York Times,
  160. "insufferably woke."
  161. Right?
  162. So I bought into this a little bit too,

  163. which is why the next time
    I taught the course
  164. I proposed a freedom of speech debate.
  165. The N-word in academic spaces,
    for or against?
  166. I was certain students would be eager
  167. to debate who gets to say it
    and who doesn't.
  168. But they weren't.
  169. Instead ...
  170. my students started confessing.
  171. A white student from New Jersey
    talked about standing by
  172. as a black kid at her school
    got bullied by this word.
  173. She did nothing and years later
    still carried the guilt.
  174. Another from Connecticut
  175. talked about the pain of severing
  176. a very close relationship
    with a family member,
  177. because that family member
    refused to stop saying the word.
  178. One of the most memorable stories
    came from a very quiet black student

  179. from South Carolina.
  180. She didn't understand all the fuss.
  181. She said everyone
    at her school said the word.
  182. She wasn't talking about kids
    calling each other names in the hall.
  183. She explained that at her school
  184. when teachers and administrators
  185. became frustrated
    with an African American student,
  186. they called that student
    the actual N-word.
  187. She said it didn't bother her at all.
  188. But then a couple of days later,
  189. she came to visit me
    in my office hours and wept.
  190. She thought she was immune.
  191. She realized that she wasn't.
  192. Over the last 10 years,

  193. I have literally heard hundreds
    of these stories
  194. from all kinds of people from all ages.
  195. People in their 50s remembering stories
    from the second grade
  196. and when they were six,
  197. either calling people the word
    or being called the word,
  198. but carrying that all these years
    around this word, you know.
  199. And as I listened to people
    talk about their points of encounter,
  200. the pattern that emerged for me
    as a teacher that I found most upsetting
  201. is the single most fraught site
  202. for these points of encounter
  203. is the classroom.
  204. Most US kids are going to meet
    the N-word in class.

  205. One of the most assigned books
    in US high schools
  206. is Mark Twain’s "The Adventures
    of Huckleberry Finn"
  207. in which the word appears over 200 times.
  208. And this isn't an indictment
    of "Huck Finn."
  209. The word is in lots
    of US literature and history.
  210. It's all over African
    American literature.
  211. Yet I hear from students
  212. that when the word is said during a lesson
  213. without discussion and context,
  214. it poisons the entire
    classroom environment.
  215. The trust between student
    and teacher is broken.
  216. Even so, many teachers,
  217. often with the very best of intentions,
  218. still say the N-word in class.
  219. They want to show and emphasize
    the horrors of US racism,
  220. so they rely on it for shock value.
  221. Invoking it brings into stark relief
  222. the ugliness of our nation's past.
  223. But they forget
  224. the ideas are alive and well
    in our cultural fabric.
  225. The six-letter word is like a capsule
    of accumulated hurt.

  226. Every time it is said, every time,
  227. it releases into the atmosphere
    the hateful notion
  228. that black people are less.
  229. My black students tell me
  230. that when the word is quoted
    or spoken in class,
  231. they feel like a giant spotlight
    is shining on them.
  232. One of my students told me
  233. that his classmates
    were like bobbleheads,
  234. turning to gauge his reaction.
  235. A white student told me
    that in the eighth grade,
  236. when they were learning
    "To Kill a Mockingbird"
  237. and reading it out loud in class,
  238. the student was stressed out
  239. at the idea of having to read the word,
  240. which the teacher insisted
    all students do,
  241. that the student ended up
    spending most of the unit
  242. hiding out in the bathroom.
  243. This is serious.

  244. Students across the country
  245. talk about switching majors
    and dropping classes
  246. because of poor teaching
    around the N-word.
  247. The issue of faculty
    carelessly speaking the word
  248. has reached such a fevered pitch,
  249. it's led to protests at Princeton, Emory,
  250. The New School,
  251. Smith College, where I teach,
  252. and Williams College,
  253. where just recently students have
    boycotted the entire English Department
  254. over it and other issues.
  255. And these were just the cases
    that make the news.
  256. This is a crisis.
  257. And while student reaction
  258. looks like an attack on freedom of speech,
  259. I promise this is an issue of teaching.
  260. My students are not afraid
    of materials that have the N-word in it.

  261. They want to learn about James Baldwin
  262. and William Faulkner
  263. and about the civil rights movement.
  264. In fact, their stories show
  265. that this word is a central feature
    of their lives as young people
  266. in the United States.
  267. It's in the music they love.
  268. And in the popular culture they emulate,
  269. the comedy they watch,
  270. it's in TV and movies
  271. and memorialized in museums.
  272. They hear it in locker rooms,
  273. on Instagram,
  274. in the hallways at school,
  275. in the chat rooms
    of the video games they play.
  276. It is all over the world they navigate.
  277. But they don't know how to think about it
  278. or even really what the word means.
  279. I didn't even really understand
    what the word meant

  280. until I did some research.
  281. I was astonished to learn
  282. that black people first incorporated
    the N-word into the vocabulary
  283. as political protest,
  284. not in the 1970s or 1980s
  285. but as far back as the 1770s.
  286. And I wish I had more time to talk
  287. about the long, subversive history
    of the black use of the N-word.
  288. But I will say this:
  289. Many times, my students
    will come up to me and say,
  290. "I understand the virulent roots
    of this word, it's slavery."
  291. They are only partially right.
  292. This word, which existed
    before it became a slur,
  293. but it becomes a slur at a very
    distinct moment in US history,
  294. and that's as large numbers
    of black people begin to become free,
  295. starting in the North in the 1820s.
  296. In other words,
  297. this word is fundamentally
    an assault on black freedom,
  298. black mobility,
  299. and black aspiration.
  300. Even now,

  301. nothing so swiftly unleashes
    an N-word tirade
  302. as a black person asserting their rights
  303. or going where they please or prospering.
  304. Think of the attacks
    on Colin Kaepernick when he kneeled.
  305. Or Barack Obama when he became president.
  306. My students want to know this history.
  307. But when they ask questions,
    they're shushed and shamed.
  308. By shying away from talking
    about the N-word,
  309. we have turned this word
    into the ultimate taboo,
  310. crafting it into something so tantalizing,
  311. that for all US kids,
  312. no matter their racial background,
  313. part of their coming of age
    is figuring out
  314. how to negotiate this word.
  315. We treat conversations about it
    like sex before sex education.
  316. We're squeamish, we silence them.
  317. So they learn about it
    from misinformed friends and in whispers.
  318. I wish I could go back
    to the classroom that day

  319. and push through my fear
  320. to talk about the fact
    that something actually happened.
  321. Not just to me or to my black students.
  322. But to all of us.
  323. You know, I think
  324. we're all connected by our inability
    to talk about this word.
  325. But what if we explored
    our points of encounter
  326. and did start to talk about it?
  327. Today, I try to create
    the conditions in my classroom

  328. to have open and honest
    conversations about it.
  329. One of those conditions --
    not saying the word.
  330. We're able to talk about it
  331. because it doesn't come
    into the classroom.
  332. Another important condition
  333. is I don't make
    my black students responsible
  334. for teaching their classmates about this.
  335. That is my job.
  336. So I come prepared.
  337. I hold the conversation with a tight rein,
  338. and I'm armed with
    knowledge of the history.
  339. I always ask students the same question:
  340. Why is talking about the N-word hard?
  341. Their answers are amazing.
  342. They're amazing.
  343. More than anything though,
  344. I have become deeply acquainted
    with my own points of encounter,
  345. my personal history around this word.
  346. Because when the N-word comes to school,
  347. or really anywhere,
  348. it brings with it all
    of the complicated history of US racism.
  349. The nation's history
  350. and my own,
  351. right here, right now.
  352. There's no avoiding it.
  353. (Applause)