Last month, a white geometry teacher in Missouri was placed on administrative leave for engaging his classroom with a question around use of the N-word; why use is permissible for Black people and not white people. The teacher said the following:
“I don’t like the word… It feels like when a Black person is using it towards another Black person…how is it not still a derogatory word? … Is this word, ‘n—–,’ not allowed?”
Hearing a white person question this very reality is not foreign to my experiences as a Black person. It’s safe to assume many Black people who’ve come across white people who’ve felt this way, whether at school, work or among friends.
The fact remains however that the N-word is off limits to white people. A word that developed as a lazy English translation of the Latin for black (niger) and Spanish for black (negro) became a tool used to designate the melanin in the skin of African people as a marker for their being economically exploited and therefore justifiably dehumanized.
An even more interesting question is why white people desire to say the N-word in the first place. TaNehisi Coates provides an insightful rationale:
“When you’re white in this country, you’re taught that everything belongs to you… You’re conditioned this way. It’s not because your hair is a texture or your skin is light. It’s the fact that the laws and the culture tell you this.”
That reality can facilitate an entitlement surrounding the use of language. It explains the backlash against use of the N-word by Black people, or use of pejorative terms meant for those who identify with traditionally marginalized social markers, including women, members of the LGBTQ+ community and believers of non-Christian faiths.
But what it also creates is an entitlement to both police the use of language and apply punitive measures for the “unlawful” use of language. That’s true with use of the N-word.
Certainly, white people cannot punish Black people for use of the N-word in Black spaces, however white people can, and continue to, punish Black people’s use of the N-word in white spaces: schools being one such space.
Traditionally speaking, school were created and remain white institutional spaces—meaning that social institutions, like schools, are created as normatively white in policy and practice whereby non-white people are subject to the structure, agenda and ideology that penalizes non-white students disproportionately. This is practiced by white and non-white educators alike.
For example, use of the N-word is considered offensively language and prohibited in schools. But I’ve worked my entire career in schools with predominately Black and Latino students… students who, outside of school, communicate using the N-word regularly. They certainly cannot utilize the word in a school setting.
However, the use of the word by Black and Brown students is policed as if they were white adults using the word. Probably because like the Missouri teacher, many white teachers believe it is just as harmful for Black kids and other students of color using the N-word.
But disciplining Black students, or Latino students, for using the N-word absent an understanding of the context whereby they use the word doesn’t facilitate a teachable moment, only a punitive one. A whataboutism doesn’t fit the Missouri teacher’s case because that teacher is simply an aggrieved white man who’s pissed that he cannot use a word that Black people deemed impermissible for white people to say.
Certainly, a conversation can be had with young people surrounding use of the N-word… particularly in the context of the proximity the Latino community has with respect to Black people that has made their use of the N-word tolerated if not outright accepted. But that is another conversation for another day. Where white folks are concerned, they aren’t to say the N-word under any circumstances.
… although they may say it in non-mixed company, but I digress.
Sadly, I suspect that this individual will not be last white teacher to say the N-word in the presence of students, Black students specifically. It happens not only because teachers may not think that a consequence will follow, but also because teachers believe that by talking down students who may not be as equip to have certain conversations, that they’ve won an argument in their own minds to give cover for saying the N-word.
They wouldn’t dare say it or argue for their use with Black adults (for fear of violence more than likely). But they shouldn’t say it around Black children, thinking they can out-intellectualize them about why white people can say the N-word. Because Black children have the capacity to skillfully debate why white folk can’t say the N-word.
… and even if they aren’t equipped in the moment with the words to say, they most certainly are equipped with a cell phone to capture you on camera saying what you should say. That’s just what happened to the Missouri teacher.
Relating it to white fans of hip hop, TaNehisi Coates shared food for thought:
“For white people, I think the experience of being a hip-hop fan and not being able to use the [N-word] is actually very, very insightful.
It will give you just a little peek into the world of what it means to be black. Because to be black is to walk through the world, and watch people doing things that you cannot do, that you can’t join in and do.”
I get that the N-word is now part of a culture that drives culture around the world; the culture being hip-hop. However, the N-word is tied to a history where African people were bound, chained, enslaved, and exploited further after enslavement. The lines may appear blurry, but for Black folk, they’ve never been so clear. In that spirit, we’ve declared that the land where the word resides is off-limits to the descendants of our oppressors.
Some Black folks have taken a violent word meant to mark our inferiority to mean anything opposite of that. Some have done so with their art, whether through written, visual or performance art. Others through their voice by way communicating with other skinfolk as well as designating racists with the word levied on us. None of this happens absent conflict amongst Black people.
But that’s for us to work out, not for white people to legislate or use as justification to say it. So again, you can’t go there… so stop trying.
Perhaps one day, we won’t go there, either. But, in the meantime, white people… keep it out your mouths and start working on keeping it out of your mindsets too.