Recently my wife and I were driving down the street in our racially diverse neighborhood in southern California. As we waited at a red light, a car full of high school age White youth pulled up next to us blasting N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton” song with their car windows down. Those unfamiliar with the rap group can look them up and read how their music is widely proclaimed to be the birth of gangsta rap on the West Coast.
I am actually “straight outta Compton,” having been born and raised there. I also served as a public school teacher in the Compton public schools early in my career. As the group of young people waited at the light, they looked over at my wife and me, smiled, and gleefully recited every word of N.W.A.’s song verbatim. Knowing these lyrics as well as I do, I was curious what would happen when the lyric with the n-word arose. Would these youngsters recite the n-word within earshot of two African-Americans right next to them?
Lo and behold, they proceeded to quote each utterance of the n-word without hesitation. I was perplexed, mildly shocked, and sad—but not angry.
Let’s be clear, the n-word is one of the most hateful, inhumane, racist, and useless words in the English vocabulary."
I do not believe that these youngsters had any malicious or racist intent when uttering the slur; they were merely reciting lyrics from a song. Many students across the racial spectrum have become far too comfortable using the n-word. This has to stop, and schools can play a critical role in helping to eliminate the word from our lexicon.
During a recent visit to a predominately White high school in Wisconsin, a group of racially diverse students told me the constant use of the n-word by their peers was a big problem at their school. One African-American student said that she gets tired of hearing her classmates—both Black and White—use the word in such a casual way. Another young White female student said that the word disgusts her, and she often chastises her classmates about the use of the word to no avail. I was particularly moved by one mixed raced student who said that it is “hurtful” to him to hear the word used so freely at school given its ugly history.
Their peers defended the term as a term of endearment when concluded with an “a” and not “er.” Others talked about how freely rap lyrics use the word, so they are just reciting music. Moreover, non-Black students shared with me how their Black classmates use it all the time and had given them “the OK” to use the word, too.
Let’s be clear, the n-word is one of the most hateful, inhumane, racist, and useless words in the English vocabulary. Its history is rooted in degradation, enslavement, dehumanization, hate, anti-Black racism, and a belief in the inferiority of Blacks and African-Americans. No student should use the n-word at school ever.
Even when it comes to textbooks and literature that contain the n-word, school personnel need to preemptively inform students that the word should be read out loud as “n word.”
I also totally reject the contention that African-American students have a “pass” on the use of the word because they have reclaimed and renamed the word. It is time for school personnel to increase their racial literacy and be much more active in eliminating the n-word.
Even as some schools have tried to create a zero-tolerance approach for the n-word for adults, many still get it wrong. Consider the recent case of Marlon Anderson, an African-American high school security guard, who was terminated for telling a student not to call him by the slur. After much public ridicule, Anderson’s Madison, Wis., school district rehired him, but this situation demonstrates that schools seem to not get it. Moreover, if there is a zero-tolerance policy for adults using the word, why not also have that same principle apply to students as well?
Schools should immediately ban the word. Educate students about it. Tell students use of the n-word will be met with immediate restorative action. This approach would apply for students who are African-American, Latinx, Asian-American, White, Native American, mixed race, and from any other racial or ethnic background. And, yes, even White administrators and teachers need to step up and tell African-American students not to use the word at school.
What would such reaction look like from schools? I think all schools should have a mandatory lesson based on the New York Times’ masterful and informative “The 1619 Project,” helmed by Nikole Hannah-Jones, which explores the history, horrors, and brutalities of slavery. All students need to understand the horrors of lynching and how countless African-Americans died hearing this racist slur as they took their last breath.
Students using the n-word would have their parents or caregivers notified, and second uses of the word would trigger in-person meetings between school personnel, the students, and their parents or caregivers.
Finally, third offenses would result in suspension. While I typically am not an advocate of suspension, I think it would send a powerful message about what language is unacceptable. I wonder how many White parents realize that their children use such an offensive word so often and so freely. Moreover, how would they respond if large numbers of their children were being suspended in ways that many African-American and Latinx students are unfairly suspended for far lesser offenses such as willful defiance, tardiness, or talking back to teachers?
The n-word must go. The word has no place in our students’ vocabulary, and even the most cursory research would reveal its long, ugly, and sordid history in our nation. Our students must know and understand that. School staff must know and understand that. Will there be resistance to schools taking a stance? Yes. However, I think schools can and should play a transformative role to create safe spaces for learning free of hate, bigotry, and harmful language.
A version of this article appeared in the November 13, 2019 edition of Education Week as It’s Time for Schools to Completely Ban the N-Word