The racial slur of the n-word is ubiquitous in society today, whether it be in music lyrics, movies, jokes, slang, or even English literature. From Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird freshman year to August Wilson’s Fences senior year, Longmeadow High’s English curriculum covers a number of culturally significant works that contain the n-word. This past summer, the question of whether the racial slur should be used in a classroom setting was raised among LHS teachers.
“Historically, a lot of English teachers [believed that] if it was in the text written by the author, who are we to be changing or censoring the text in class?” says Mr. Cormier, LHS English teacher and English Department Head. “I think there is an argument that the text is the text”. When passages were read, English teachers believed that it was their responsibility on some level to teach the text as the author wrote it. For years, students were expected to read the word out loud when reading passages, but always given the option not to if they were uncomfortable.
Mr. Weil has also used the n-word when teaching, saying “we’d always talk first about that word’s power and awful history – although there is more to it than just a piece of history – the word represents an idea. An idea disguised as a word.”
However, after further educating himself through reading, Mr. Weil’s opinion has shifted. “It just doesn’t feel like using the word gets me something so valuable that I couldn’t stop using it,” he says. “I don’t see how not using the word means a huge educational opportunity will be missed. If using the word has potential of making it harder for someone to learn, making someone feel shut-down or guarded in any way, then that’s not worth it to me.”
This past summer, LHS students raised awareness of the notable uptick in usage of the n-word outside the classroom setting. “This came as a big surprise to English teachers,” explains Mr. Cormier. “It had never occurred to us that by simply going through a text, it would lead to students using it casually outside of the academic setting. It has caused a lot of us to pause.” He says, teachers understand that if saying the n-word “is creating a culture in the classroom where students feel unsafe, and even disrespected, then we ought not to use it.”
Mr. Weil describes how he “heard stories about how we think using the word in the context of the classroom is a learning point and that’s it. But then we hear about students using it in other contexts more casually. I don’t have documented proof that those two things are related,” he says, “but I don’t think I need documented proof. That’s not really the point.”
In his teaching career, Mr. Cormier has only had one student express discomfort to administration over using the n-word. “We had a conversation about that in class,” says Cormier, “and since we were doing small group readings, we allowed the groups to come to a decision about [using] it. The end result was that most groups decided not to use it. That was the only time it has come up in my teaching years.” However, just because very few students chose to approach administration does not mean the rest were entirely comfortable with the use of the word in class.
Mr. Weil has never had a student directly approach him about the use of the n-word. “But I don’t think that means discomfort isn’t there,” he says. “I’ve read about how when a student of color hears that word said in the classroom, they feel like they are on display – they feel like people are turning to see what their reaction is. And that bothers me. Even in a classroom, as contained as it is, it’s problematic. And I can do it to some extent, but I can’t control everything that’s happening in that classroom and when students walk out that door.”
Students of color at Longmeadow agree that discomfort exists surrounding the use of the slur in class. Senior Brooke Days recalls her teachers reading the n-word out loud. She describes how “it builds a lot of tension between me and other students in the classroom. My classmates are often surprised that the teacher said it in front of me. It’s upsetting because I wonder why they can’t just skip the word.” Trina Morrow agrees that they felt discomfort when the word was used in class, saying “It was somewhat shocking. I don’t think it is hard to censor or skip over it.”
“I feel like they could say it if we see it a few times in a book, because we are learning about history, but they should at least blip it out if it occurs a lot in the book,” suggests junior Elijah Hairston.
“Our first priority is always to have a respectful classroom, a safe classroom,” says Mr. Cormier, “and if using the word out loud in our classroom is causing us to not achieve either of those objectives, then maybe it is a better path not to use it.”