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“How should I respond when a student says the n-word?”

As a professional in the field of race equity education, very little surprises me. Teachers frequently describe scenarios in the classroom and on the playground in which students use the n-word. Somehow, during our transition toward a more virtual routine, the word appears more frequently along with an increase of other oppressive and offensive types of behavior. All of us are learning that the virtual world provides an extra set of eyes on incidents we might not normally capture. What surprises me is how unprepared teachers are to intervene.

 It pains me every time I hear about one of these incidents. It takes me back to my childhood experience on a soccer field when a white boy on the opposing team called me that word. I remember the pain, humiliation and guilt I felt, as if I was in some way responsible. I remember my mom immediately approached my white male coach and asked him to intervene. If my mother had not reacted just as quickly as it happened, my coach might not have even responded. As humiliating as this incident was, seeing my coach stop the game and demand a public apology reassured me that I had done nothing wrong and let me know that I was not alone. In that moment, the adults surrounding me were accountable. While the pain I felt that day is still present, it has resulted in my commitment to helping educators understand that we cannot afford to take these incidents lightly. For those who candidly seek how to deal with these situations and want gain greater understanding, I represent not only a professional race educator, but a child who was harmed and yet overcome the harm by having the right kind of support. 

When we think about ways to intervene in order to minimize the trauma these incidents cause, it is important to remember that there are two parties involved. Sometimes the student on the receiving end of this treatment is portrayed as someone who must have done something to deserve it or that the context in which the word was used was misunderstood. Parents of children who have been called the n-word are often portrayed as blowing the incident out of proportion or overreacting, as if it was an innocent mistake and no big deal. However, parents of those children have likely been recipients of this slur at some point in their own lives. These incidents can be triggers and the feelings that arise are very much valid, especially when we can all attest to the current racial climate. These incidents are serious and can leave long-lasting harm. We should never minimize their impact. 

In my work with schools, I notice that sometimes we tend to lose sight of the student who was harmed, and instead focus on the offender. Often times we see educators run to defend the white student, trying to justify their behavior by saying they have other issues, family problems, or a history of impulsive behavior. Conversation tends to focus on how we can minimize the guilt of the person who said it. Other times, the focus is on punishment rather than education.

My response is that these incidents present us with teachable moments. It is not enough to tell a child not to use the word, especially when more commonly than not, children don’t fully understand the long-lasting impact of this word. I recently worked with a school to coach a white student who had used the n-word “to get a stupid laugh from his friends.” He didn’t understand the weight this word carried until he became better informed. Once he understood, he committed to never use the word again and to advocate against its use.

How can educators intervene?

1. First, focus on the student who was the target of the word. Understand the pain these incidents cause and the necessity to respond with empathy and support, not only to the student, but to their parents. There is no justification for using this word, and Black and Brown students need to know it was not their fault. They need to hear that the behavior was wrong and to know how it will be addressed.

2. These incidents are not innocent mistakes, but they are teachable moments. Be clear with students who use the word that it is hurtful, unkind, and cruel. Let them know that there is no excuse for using it, and such utterances will not be tolerated. This is an opportunity for students to learn about the impact of their actions and how rectify the harm they have caused. 

3. Explore the student’s motivation for using the word. One teacher asks, “Who were you trying to impress?” She finds students almost always have an answer to this question. 

4. Provide education about the meaning, history, and impact of the word. The n-word is deeply embedded in and representative of a racial system in which white Americans have used it to degrade Black Americans. The multiple and contradictory meanings of the word can be confusing to some white students because 1) they hear it in music lyrics, and 2) they may see their Black peers using it casually as an intimacy marker. However, there are political and linguistic reasons for this, and this is an opportunity to talk about the history of how words evolve, particularly the power of insults (yes, Shakespeare), and the power of a people to “take back the language.” There IS absolutely a double standard, and white students benefit from understanding the reasons for this. 

To learn more about how to talk with students about the n-word, see Learning for Justice’s interview with Neal Lester. Lester, who taught a college level course on the n-word, says the word’s “bloodsoaked history” is “inextricably linked with violence and brutality on black psyches and derogatory aspersions cast on black bodies.” Other sources include Koritha Mitchell’s Teaching and the N-Word: Questions to Consider, Ta-Neheshi Coates on Why White People Shouldn’t Use the N-Word, and the C19 Podcast, The N-Word in the Classroom: Just Say No

A curriculum to explore this word belongs in every school, and certainly an examination of the word should happen before teaching any history or literature that uses the word. (And let’s be clear – the n-word should never be spoken by any teacher.) We all have a role to play in educating students about the power and politics surrounding the n-word. It begins with educators being prepared to talk with students about this word, to intervene when they hear it used, to be accountable to both students who have been harmed and students who have caused harm, and to respond to each with compassion and guidance.”

© 2021 • iChange Collaborative