Monday, July 31, 2006

The "N" Word

I feel like I am set up to learn a lot about race and acceptance in my future years teaching in Brooklyn. And I also think I’ll have my heart broken due to race-related slings and arrows of prejudice. What credibility does a white girl have walking into an inner-city high school where the students are mostly black with a dash of latino? How do you react when calling a student African American gets you looked at like you’re speaking another, slightly offensive, language? My students aren’t African American; they see the word as an invention of white folks to make them more relatable. Like politically correct pets. But I get the idea they don’t want to be supported on the white world’s words. They rather be black on their own terms, in their own community than be African American and beholden to “the white man.”


So where do I fit in, the white educator?


Case in point: Today during class I was reading to the group the beginning chapters of River, Cross My Heart, by Breena Clarke. It’s an Oprah’s book club type of book, and it takes place in a black society in Virginia containing many of the issues African Americans face, including racism. So, I’m reading a passage about a prejudiced woman who is both white and in poverty and reading straight from the book I say the word nigger. Now, it wasn’t my word, and it wasn’t directly from me, but one of my students shot up and demanded I apologize. I was kinda stunned, but not terrible so after the initial shock with the Sha-sha incident. I asked Ramel what the problem was, and his response was that nigger was an offensive word, and that I should say “The N word” whenever it comes up in a book.


I tried to explain that nigger was only a word, that it only had the power a person allowed it to have. I also mentioned that editing the book in that way because it was offensive was censorship. It was a roadblock to the liberal inside of me; it killed me that a student could be stopped in his tracks because of a word. Sticks and stones, I thought ruefully. How can I, as an educator, explain that making the word nigger taboo by having it referred to as "The N word" only gives it more power? What kills me is that I doubt the issue would have come up if I were black. I’m not part of the club, and I can’t borrow the language even if I’m reading a novel about black people that is written by a black author. My smartest move, in the end, was letting it go. I can’t change what offends someone; I can’t even enlighten them if they don’t want to be.

God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
the courage to change the things I can;
and the wisdom to know the difference.

4 Comments:

Blogger beth said...

Oh wow. What an experience. You're right...the power is in the claiming of it. And sadly, it's often in who is using it. Dyke's another one...generally, when straight people use it, it's derogatory, but when used in a group of lesbians, it's usually positive. It's all about reclaiming the word and making it positive...if that's possible, which I'm not sure it is with nigger...at least not for white girls like us. I feel for you sweetie! It's definitely a tough position to be in.

Monday, July 31, 2006 4:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Wicked said...

Okay- so you reap what you sow when you give me your blogspot. The truth is you are not a member of the club- neither the Black/African American/People of Color club or as importantly the student club. You are the teacher, Ms. Chandler, this is a teachable moment. You are not a student, either. So teach them. We haven't figured all of the race issues out, so literature is a way to express experience. This is a single narrative that represents a collective conscience; it isn't exactly their experience either. My only concern is that if indeed the child had said "Fuck you!", those words would have been powerful enough to land him/her in the office, and you, beloved, would be the Great White Hyopcrite.
So there are a few possibilities:
1) Apologize- that is what civilized folks do when they hurt someone's feelings unintentionally.
2) Talk to the student about censorship and changing the language they use- What if we all used the same agreed upon vocabulary? Would you/ Could you abide by it?
3) Talk about the power of language- just like you did- but explore the periphery more closely. In elementary it sounds like this, "In some homes you can use words like butt/crap/etc..., but at school we have to abide by the rules of the strictest houses. Look in our classroom, who do you think might have the most strict rules about what they can say (or wear)? A kid can pick out the home with the strictest rules every time. I know that in your house those are words you say, but some folks might be hurt by that, etc...
4) Ask them why they believe the author used the word in question? Is it okay with some of us, but not all of us? Why then might an author use a word that is offensive? You'll likely get answers that are close- they are historically accurate, blah blah blah. You may as a class decide what you believe to be tolerable and what is not tolerable, as well as comfortable substitutions. In a diverse setting, this is necessary.

Admitting to your students that literature is a place where there are forms of expression meant to inflame might spark some interest- just like music and other more palatable genres. You don't have to be just like your students to teach them; you have to like them and encourage them to live into their potential.

You are never going to be part of the club. You're not supposed to be. You're fabulous and they are lucky to have you because you tolerate some things and don't tolerate others.

Monday, July 31, 2006 8:18:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry to burst your bubble, but you're NOT allowed to say 'nigger.' While it may be true that words have only as much power as we give them, this doesn't apply to 'nigger.'
As a white person, you can't possibly understand the depth of the history behind the word.
It represents racism, hate, and a degradation that only Blacks know and understand. Even the black in our generation, who obviously aren't slaves, still cringe at the history of that word. Ever heard of white privilege?

You have white privilege. It means white people don't realize that they're white and the world through their eyes is VERY different from the world through a black person's eyes.
Everyday that a person of color wakes up and looks in the mirror, they see a black face. And it's a recognition. White people do NOT wake up and look in the mirror and say "Oh gee, I'm white, again today."

The very fact that you don't even understand why your student was offended and you tried explaining your way out of it is ridiculous and evident of the fact that you're SO WHITE and have no business saying the nigger. EVER.

Thursday, June 05, 2008 9:44:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I also am white and yes I don't know what it is like to see someone else in the mirror, but why would seeing a black person in the mirror be recognition? Is that bad? We are who we are and maybe when we stop worrying about being politically correct and start discussing the issues we will start to improve. I think all people need to stop worrying about the past, learn from it and start working on their future.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009 11:02:00 AM  

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