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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

December 11, 2019   |   Ithaca, NY

ColumnsInto Identity

Racial epithets have a space in the classroom

Paul Zwier is a law professor at Emory University. Last September, he got in trouble for uttering the word “nigger” while discussing the facts of a civil rights case. One of his students complained to the administration about feeling shocked and hurt by Zwier’s usage of the N-word. After a year-long investigation, Emory will decide Oct. 4 whether or not to terminate Zwier for racial insensitivity. 

Do racial epithets have any place in the classroom? They certainly should. Classes are spaces where no controversial topic is off the table. When non-black professors refer to the N-word with a euphemism, a significant aspect of the word’s meaning is lost. I would feel a bit patronized if a professor thought I was emotionally incapable of hearing them merely quote iconic writers — like James Baldwin — who employ this slur in their writings.

How are students supposed to examine the historical facts and layered meanings of this loaded word if it can’t be seen, heard or said? Moreover, there’s a clear distinction between wielding this slur as a vehicle for racism and referencing it to discuss reading materials that deal with the systemic oppression of African-Americans. 

In order for learning to occur, these distinctions need to be acknowledged and appreciated. I’d go as far as to argue that professors, regardless of their race, should pronounce the full epithet. That way, students — particularly black students — can thoroughly absorb the rhetorical power and visceral force this repugnant slur commands. Nonetheless, I’d urge instructors to not use “nigger” outside of academic contexts. That would seem a bit gratuitous and could empower others to negligently throw around this term. Ultimately, professors should teach the N-word in a respectful manner that furthers honest — even painful — conversations about its cruel history. 

When I first heard a white professor say the N-word to discuss the word itself, I felt nauseous. My strategy for dealing with this nausea was to ask myself: What am I gaining from possibly destroying this professor’s life other than a brief catharsis for my racial trauma? Perhaps, is there more to learn from evoking this trauma than asking to be coddled from it?

I have a hard time wrapping my head around students feeling the need to always flock to the administration when they hear professors say something politically incorrect. Do they not realize that taking the bureaucratic route to address the concerns of marginalized students often ends up transferring more power to the administration? Are students, particularly those who are marginalized and underrepresented, okay with this transfer of power?

If this is what needs to happen so students of color can enjoy their lives on campus, then so be it. But then who is to stop the administration from weaponizing our grievances against us? Just like any other power structure, higher education can validate the experiences of underrepresented students and also suppress them — especially if our concerns stand in the way of its economic mission. 

Also, diversity bureaucrats cannot conceivably scrub the campus clean of racism and bigotry. Does this mean that colleges shouldn’t respond to social justice demands? Of course not. However, this social justice work does not mean that administrators cave into every progressive tangent trum — particularly when those tantrums call for policing historically ubiquitous words. 

Controversies surrounding professors using the N-word can’t be reduced to free speech and academic freedom. What’s also at stake here is how black students navigate racial trauma within academic environments. Speaking for myself, I find exposure to triggering materials — whether that be hearing the N-word or witnessing lynching photographs — more effective in helping me cope with my emotional vulnerabilities and learn about racism in the United States. The enormous violence of racist words and images can only be conveyed through exposure, not censorship.