The N-word has no place in the classroom
Conversations about the N-word shouldn't be avoided, writes Sulaimon Giwa
As a Nigerian-born professor who teaches about disrupting whiteness and systemic inequalities, I understand that I and my fellow educators have a grave responsibility: to steward the rising generation of global citizens.
The classroom, for us, is a site for setting high standards for informed and inclusive dialogues that prepare our students to be active and socially conscious citizens. In Newfoundland and Labrador, a white society where there are few Black students in most classrooms, our teaching must seek to create learning communities of care.
In recent history, the Canadian actor Nicholas Campbell, media organizations in Québec, and even a well-known CBC personality have used the N-word. As we observe Black History Month in 2022, it is staggering that educators at Canadian universities are also still using the N-word.
One white educator, Professor Coby Dowdell at King's University College, used the word — in quotes — when discussing the book Heart of Darkness. He later apologized, noting his reason for saying the word: "to help students think through historical racism and the ethical responsibilities of studying works of literature from the past."
I understand the desire — and sometimes the fixation — of some educators to use the N-word as a pedagogical imperative for teaching about the power of words and systems of power. Saying the N-word injects an element of shock, which can help to underscore the ugliness of past histories.
But such a desire needs to be balanced against risks — real and imagined — to Black and non-Black students. Using the N-word legitimizes it.
When educators say it in the classroom, they give permission to white students to use it, absent of discussion and context, often with compounding effects for Black students. Educators need to be concerned about the message being transmitted and internalized by all students.
The N-word is rooted in the enslavement of Black people who were transported to Europe and the Americas from 1502 to 1860. As the property of white masters or slaveholders, they had no rights as citizens and were subjected to the inhumanity of white supremacy, including being bought and sold at slave markets.
The N-word was hurled at Black people as they were lynched and castrated, thrown out of white-only establishments to the ferocious barking of attack dogs, and prevented from attending all-white schools. For many Black people today, this word still carries the effects of oppression and dehumanization.
Elizabeth Pryor, professor of history and race at Smith College, reminds us that the N-word is not just a word. It is an idea veiled as a word. It carries negative notions about Blackness, among which is that Black people are less than white people.
Describing anti-Black feelings and verbal assaults experienced by free Blacks in the antebellum North, the N-word, she argues, "emerged as a weapon of racial containment, a barometer against which to measure the increasingly rigid boundaries of whiteness and a mechanism used to police and cleanse public space."
Such thinking assumes that Black people are racially inferior and blames them for inviting the racist violence directed at them.
White people inhabit and operate in this world in ways that are inaccessible to Black people. Defending the word's educational utility displays a particular idea of white racial innocence: an entrenched rejection of white culpability in the continuing pain and trauma of Black people.
For many white people, it seems, the insistence that the N-word is "off limits" has made it a tempting, forbidden fruit, such that it takes restraint for white educators not to use it. The very fact of this required restraint provides a glimpse into everyday life in a Black skin.
Educators can create learning communities of care by committing to a set of ground rules about how to engage in conversation about this.
First, we can engage our students in developing class norms to set the tone for dialogue, thus offering them ownership of their learning within a safer, more caring classroom culture.
Second, we can build a shared vocabulary of words that will guide the classroom discussion. How will literature containing the N-word be handled? What are potential impacts of agreed-upon words on Black students — will they feel safe? Answers to these questions can support an inclusive learning environment for racially diverse students.
Third, we can recognize that racism is not an artifact of a bygone era. White students especially must be prompted to connect history with the current realities of their lives.
Conversations about the N-word are important and should not be avoided. There are certain standards of mutual respect and social responsibility that we have a duty to uphold in any educational setting.
Our approach must create safer and caring learning communities, as a bedrock foundation for human decency in white people's interactions with Black people.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.