When Students Use the N-Word

This summer, Hulk Hogan lost his contract with World Wide Wrestling Entertainment because of his use of the N-Word in a racist rant caught on tape.  As is the case when this word comes out of the mouth of some notable person, there ensues a conversation about the word… its etymology (origin) and its usage.

When I was a beginning teacher, fresh out of college, I had to quickly come to terms with the N-word being casually tossed around.  Contrary to what some would expect, the word was not used to be derogatory.  It was used to express endearment.   As a result, I had to figure out how I felt about this treatment and figure out what I was going to about it.

My first real teaching assignment was in a Catholic school.  While that environment had its own unique challenges, dealing with student language was not one of them.  Being private, the school had a right to declare a set of standards based on a set of values and we as the teachers were not only authorized to police those values, we were mandated.  So, in that environment, if the word came up, it was easy for me to hide behind the school’s policy and not come face to face with my own personal beliefs of the word.

But, when I moved on to teach in a public school setting, the lines of right and wrong were more blurred.  It is not as though the public school community lacks character and values.  It has more to do with a more prevailing value that almost trumps all others.  And that is the value of diversity and respect.  So when the issue of language came up, the universal, uncontested, tools that were used to deal with language at the Catholic school were no longer at my disposal.  I had to locate a different set of tools to address language… and I had to do so in a way that still honored the diversity of my learners and my respect for them.

Of course if the N-word was used as a source of disdain, I was able to easily address it.  But, that was not my experience in the public schools in which I was employed.  As with the first school, I had to deal with the fact that the N-word had been appropriated and casually adopted as one of endearment… and was readily used among different groups of learners… whether they were Black, White, Latin, Asian or Native American.

It was not as though I had never heard the word used as a term of endearment.  But, it was the first time that I heard a White student saying it to another White student.  So in that context, White on White as opposed to Black on Black, with the supposed intent to express brotherhood and comradery, I had to check my reaction.  I had to dig deep and figure out what I really believed about the word… and what I believed about my students’ rights for self-expression.

Although not conceptualized as clearly as when I was a young adult, I have resolved the matter by dealing with issues of qualification vs. justification.  According to a Google search, to qualify means to “be entitled to a particular benefit or privilege by fulfilling a necessary condition.”  And, to justify means to “show or prove to be right or reasonable.”  In other words, one may feel privileged or entitled to use the N-word but this does not mean they are justified or right to use it.

Some people use the word to express a kinship, a connection, a brotherly love.  Others use it to shame, to stigmatize and to express a deep disdain.  In that words have a strong correlation with attitudes, beliefs and biases, those who use this word for those reasons (whether for brotherhood or disdain) do actually qualify to use it.  In the designated context, the word accurately conveys the heart and intent of the speaker.

But just as much as one qualifies to use the N-word because it has relevance to the speaker’s intent and core disposition, one does not have the justification to use it. To be justified means that there is some form of collective validation of its usage.  And, in this time in our nation’s history where many are desperately trying to move toward some form of racial healing and harmony, the historical etymology of the word just does not allow for such justification… regardless of one’s qualification.

I hope this framing (qualification versus justification) will help other teachers facing the use of N-word in the classroom (or language in general in the construction of classroom rules).   It’s almost inevitable.  The pervasive use of the word, including its newer appropriation, makes it hard to believe that teachers will not come face to face with its usage.  And honestly, I cannot imagine any environment where the word would be allowed.  So as you prepare to start a new school year, whether you use my frame or another, please have a plan to redirect students to use more appropriate language.

In the comment section, I invite other teachers to share how they have redirected students’ use of the N-word when it has come up.

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