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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The N-word

Until I can more clearly state my opinion I wanted to provide a space for everyone to express their ideas and opinions. This not something that should just be forgotten, nor should anyone be scapegoated.

4 comments:

Lammers said...

I'm writing my thoughts here because I didn't want to sift through the endless "Such-and-Such Opened . . ." messages in my inbox.

The "n-word" has been a bone of contention in my classroom for the last three years. In the corner of my classroom hangs a poster of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Anytime, and I mean ANY time a student utters the "n-word" in my classroom, they must turn and face the poster. They must then apologize to Dr. King for using the word. I do this because I am sick of my students - African American or not - using the word as a term of endearment. I loathe the word, but at the same time I found it refreshing to see our students take this dialogue to the greater school community via the U-Times. The article and subsequent uproar have been positive developments.

The "n-bomb," and the separation between those who have the perceived "right" to use it and those who have not, has been the big, invisible elephant in the room for years.

No matter how you slice it, it is not right to say that certain students can say it and that certain students cannot by virtue of their skin color, background, upbringing or socioeconomic status. When I first began challenging my students to stop using the word, I was told by several that I had "no right" to do so because I "couldn't understand."

Gee, I wonder why . . .

I stuck to my guns and the Admins backed me. They still do. For that, I am grateful. I am also grateful that Mr. Bratkowski allowed these pieces to be published in the U-Times. We will never make progress if we never bring up the unspoken division caused by the word. Instead of rolling up the U-Times and batting the writers and editors on the nose with it, we should be encouraging more dialogue on the issue.

Why is it semi-okay for some people to use the word, and why is it NEVER okay for others to use it? Two years ago, a caucasian UCHS teacher was replaced in part because she used the word in the same manner as a student - as a term of endearment. Job performance issues aside, was that right?

The word is poisonous, and I absolutely understand how some took offense to its use in the U-Times. I get that. I winced when I read it. I think everybody did. I only hope that people feel just as offended when students utter it in the cafeteria, in front of the school, or when they hear musicians use it 50 times in a song. If they are not equally offended in these cases, then I hope they ask themselves why that is so and why they are okay with that double standard.

If we are ever going to get past this issue, then it absolutely cannot be taken off the table. Let's do what we ask our students to do. Let's ANALYZE this issue and let's do so with tact and respect, but let's not be afraid to have the courageous conversation.

Just my two cents.

Lori Adkins said...

Mr. Lammers I appreciate how you were able to express many of my underlying thoughts. I mostly kept my comments in the e-mail based on the headline issue due to keeping us focused on journalism and curriculum. You are so right about that elephant. I like how you have the students apologize to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I often feel like our students are needing to learn empathy and his messages were so strongly filled with the true message of peace and caring for one another. We each bare scars that are frequently hidden. What may have appeared as insensitivity on my part or "You can never understand because you are not of color", actually comes from a far deeper well that I have difficulty putting into words. I was physically assualted in the 7th grade over apparently what turned out to be a racial situation. I am currently not able to talk about it in a large group setting, but after all of these years I have begun to open up to small groups. The "n-word" cuts me deeply. I have learned to see it and look at from the new generation point of view and realize all must be taught how to effectively communicate pain and care for one another. Thanks to all of those involved for making this a teachable moment. Let's make certain our wonderful students receive the benefit in the end.

Kelley said...

Do you think this is reducing the experience of some individuals or groups, or do you think this has provided an inroad for the “nonexperienced” to learn about “the experience” and the experienced?

First of all, why is the “n-word” the only one getting all of the attention? Where I come from (Florida) the “c-word” is also a degrading term. I am not out to say that one term is more hurtful or disgusting than the other, I am simply making the point that this is not such an “anti-black” headline as some care to emphasize. To me, we can’t simplify this to a fight over one word. This is a revelation of knowing how to respond to each other’s “ignorance.” As educators, we hope that our students will not only learn but actively want to learn and seek out opportunities to mature into more empathetic, productive, responsible citizens. If we punish ignorance when it is revealed, how will we ever be able to heal it?

This has certainly become a teachable moment! And the goal is that a lesson is learned, not just by students enrolled at UCHS but by any and all members of the community. The goal is that the “n-word” and the “c-word” and all words in similar categories such as anti-homosexual or anti-woman, anti-teenager slander that we might hear or speak mindlessly will be considered mindfully. This is a lesson about understanding – to just focus on one word, whether it start with an “n” or a “c” is to deny the real point here. We are talking about the freedom to speak as a means to exercise the freedom to learn without fear.

How many of us (especially those of us who have not experienced being traumatically victimized by prejudicial language) don’t ever talk about how to make things better or to understand others because we are afraid of offending other people in the process? I for one often keep my mouth shut and don’t ask questions because I am afraid I’ll use the “wrong” word or that I’ll speak it with the “wrong” tone. I have become so silent, that I often times avoid speaking at all, except with those who look like me, talk like me, and have experienced life like me. With my “ethnic group” or my “culture” or my “class” I am safe – because we already understand each other well enough. This is great if we want to continue to talk about St. Louis in regards to sides: North, South, White, Black, Gay, Trailer Trash, Immigrants, Hoosiers, Gangsters… How, if we don’t talk out loud can we ever learn that our words are “hurtful”? How if we never talk at all can we ever learn that we have great things to tell each other? Yes, some people intend to bully, belittle, and stigmatize through language, we all know that words have crippling, abusive power. Therein lays the problem: we know these words are powerful but we don’t know how powerful or in what ways. It’s like shooting with a blindfold on and then walking away never to see if the bullet hit anyone or if it made any damage. Because the victim doesn’t get up to tell us they’ve been hit, or killed, we shoot again, and again, and again, never learning that shooting blindly is cruel. Or, we have heard stories of the damage shooting can do, and we are so afraid of hurting someone we avoid all guns, meaning we don’t know how to protect others or disengage the weapon if we come across one. It’s the combination of that knowledge and ignorance that either makes is really talkative (bullet happy) or completely silent (gun shy). We speak up because we see that using words can get us what we want that there is power in speech. Or, we stay silent because we know using those words can make someone else powerful against us. Either way, both types of people wield their tongues ignorantly and we stay that way because we are afraid. We are afraid of becoming victims of verbal or physical abuse ourselves.

From my perspective, as a white woman, who desires very much to be an active anti-racist, I have found that I am often defeated because falling pray to silent ignorance. I know that many of us avoid as best we can adding to prejudicial speech or action. At the end of the day, all I want is to be living Dr. King’s dream or at least helping it seem possible. But often times, I stick to myself or “my kind” on certain subjects because I am afraid that someone with a different life experience will misinterpret or attack what I say as being the “wrong” thing. Consequently, I never speak at all. But, I don’t think I’m “wrong,” I’m just learning. I am on a spectrum wanting to move from ignorance toward empathy and enlightenment.
Obviously, my fear of being “wrong” is not unique. I am not alone. Just look around: segregation continues! But, I am aware of this and I am trying to continue this dialogue to say at the end of the day, I want to hear what people have to say , “n-word” or “c-word” and all. That is the only way for us to realize that some words are weapons and how not to shoot them off without regard to their impact.

Freedom of speech is not about having the freedom to use words as weapons but of having the freedom to teach each other to consider alternatives, to communicate more accurately personal experiences. Freedom of speech is the right to speak without fear. It is the freedom to speak without the fear of being attacked or called stupid or ignorant or insensitive because we spoke up. We will never be able to learn the power of words, if we aren’t allowed to bring them up. And, we will never learn how to bring them up “correctly” if we don’t ever try. And yes, we might bring them up the wrong way the first time. But, let’s assume it’s ignorance not ill-intent that causes that. And that in speaking ignorantly we are really just willing to say “I might be wrong, but please don’t hate me. Instead, teach me!” Yes, our students are novices, yes, new teachers are also novices, we, as St. Louisans are novices. We need to let ourselves learn, acknowledge mistakes, beware of feelings, honestly accept people’s experiences, and try as best we can to assume the best out of each other and work toward accepting each other’s emotions as a community effort to become less ignorant.

Also, the rules change as we become more responsible, and more aware. With great freedom comes great responsibility. Don’t silence these students or this school because of being offended. Use the offense as a way to keep communicating; to not blame people for their ignorance but not accept it, either. Teach! After all, that’s what we do, right? Also, learn! That’s what we do, too, right? But, let’s do it by understanding we’re all ignorant on some level. Focusing on the desire for positive change takes the hostility out of the learning process: freedom to speak and learn without fear.

Dan Holden said...

If this article had been accompanied by a note from the editor, then I feel it would have done much to ameliorate this conflict.

I am surprised that there was no administrative oversight of the school publications. All editorial decisions are made by committee not just one person especially if that person is a first year teacher. I remember frequently made rash and stupid statements in the classroom, I still do occasionally, If I had an outlet such as the school newspaper, those comments would have been part of the public record.

As for the public record, I hope that these missives are being archived by our school library so that it will not be forgotten or swept under the rug.