As a community organizer and activist, I am sometimes asked to engage teachers and administrators in equity education training as part of their PD days. In recent years, there has been a substantial growth in racial and ethnic diversity of students in our schools. The vast majority of teachers, on the other hand, are made up of white females – with racialized teachers representing only a token few. Given this disproportional composition, issues of race and racism are likely topics to come up in conversation. Personally, I think it’s great that we’re finally more accepting of the fact that these conversations need to be had – even if they make us feel incredibly uncomfortable. What I’ve quickly learned, however, is that they really can go either way. Some outcomes lead to meaningful conversations rooted in respect and understanding. But more often than not, it’s utter chaos. A few months ago, I was attending a workshop session on race and racism – with a lens on how power and privilege dynamics adversely affect the wellbeing of racialized students. It was led by the only Black male teacher, at a school made up of a predominately white staff. Somehow, this gave some teachers a pass to openly discuss how some youth, especially Black youth, use the “n” word in their everyday language. It was quite alarming to witness just how quick teachers were to place blame and shame on Black students for using the word. What’s more is the use of the “n” word itself. For whatever reason, some white folks have an inexplicable confidence in actually saying the word – without the slightest hesitation. And every time that happened, I experienced, what quite literally felt like visceral jolts packed with an electrifyingly violent force so powerful, it completely and utterly overtook my body. I suddenly found myself coming face to face with a violent wave of rage and resistance. It was hostile, and I didn’t feel safe. It’s a spiritual wound. It’s incredibly painful, and the impact that this language has on our bodies, minds, and psyches warrants further dialogue.
So, what’s at issue here? Well first of all, the use of the “n” word is incredibly contested, especially given its rooted historical context and pejorative meaning. The “n” word originates from the Spanish and French languages to describe people of African descent because of their dark skin. Over time, it became a derogatory term – historically used by slave masters and colonialists (and then eventually regular white folk) to assert their power and superiority over Black people. Today, the word is inextricably tied to horrific events in our past and recent history – the brutal 400 years history of the forced enslavement of Africans in the Americas, racial segregation in the deep South, and Jim Crow, as well as the 18th century colonization of Africa (which included physical and cultural genocides), and the systemic racism that continues to exist in contemporary times at the hands of the state and the police. The word is symbolic of the violence and brutality cast on Black psyches and Black bodies, and has been used to oppress Black people for centuries. This is reason enough to understand that no degree of appropriating can rid it of its blood-soaked history. In simple terms, the “n” word double standard is a myth. It’s not the place of white and non-Black folks to decide whether or not the word should be reclaimed or not. The moral judgement on how Black people reclaim the term is not relevant to the discussion of why it is never okay for non-Black people to use the term. And it’s especially not the place of non-Black folks to chime in on what they think. Your opinion is misplaced and misinformed. It’s inherently problematic to trivialize the lived experiences of Black folks. And it’s especially problematic to downplay the traumatic effect it has on Black identity and the psyche of racialized communities. The discourse is cause for many microaggressions that make workplaces, campuses, and relationships hostile environments for Black people. Non-Black people who feel the need to police Black people on the moral repercussions of the term often misuse their non-Black privilege in forcing the issue.
The truth is language is not ahistorical, and cannot be used without context. Claiming ownership or undermining the word itself, in essence, contributes to the erasure of history – which in effect removes any measure of accountability – and this simply cannot be tolerated. The response that these teachers had was a very typical one. It was a knee-jerk reaction to fear, discomfort, and confusion. Difficulty in navigating conversations like this arise when people lack the knowledge on race relations from a sociohistorical perspective. But it’s also a common deflection tactic. Living in a neoliberal era whereby individualism is highly valued has made it easier for some to pathologize those who have historically been marginalized for the problems that they encounter, than to acknowledge the systemic oppressions that continue to exist for certain communities. In this context, non-Black folks feel entitled so much so that they would rather focus on how the individual is to blame for their own circumstances, and remove themselves entirely from the slightest possibility of being complicit in a system that thrives off the backs of Black and other marginalized folks. The entry point then becomes a deficit model of understanding – a “blame the victim” mindset, if you will. Policing Black people in this way has to stop, because the reality is, we all have a responsibility to focus on uprooting racism within ourselves and our communities. We need to do a better job in guiding meaningful conversations that are intent on supporting those of us who continue to face racism and other forms of discrimination on a daily basis. We cannot continue to centre these conversations around how we feel or think – it has nothing to do with us. We need to invest our time and resources in educating ourselves. This starts with challenging our own personal biases, and acknowledging the power and privilege we bring with us. It’s about time we listen intently, and really commit ourselves to critically engaging the questions, emotions, and energies that surface in these spaces. Language has meaning, and cannot forgo context. We cannot afford to continue this way. The solution? It’s quite simply really. Don’t say the word – not now, and not ever.