Can I Utter a Racial Slur in My Classroom?

I teach business law at a private university. One of the undergraduate courses I teach is employment law, which covers discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I believe it is important to explain the groundbreaking significance of this legislation to my students, so I delve into the de facto apartheid in the South, with its Jim Crow laws, widespread discrimination against all kinds of minority groups and the resistance of many legislators, especially in the South, to the approval of this law.

Senator Strom Thurmond was an outspoken opponent of the bill, and I quote an earlier speech of his in which he used the N-word. And therein lies my dilemma. Do I use the real word in class? I think that using the real word dramatizes how shocking and offensive his speech was and that using the watered down version robs him of his power. I firmly believe that I have the right to use the word for educational purposes. On the other hand, I know that the use of that word is effectively forbidden, and some students may be offended by it, especially coming from a white teacher. Also, I know faculty members have been fired because they quoted literary passages that use the slur.

I am at a loss. I keep changing my mind, sometimes deciding to use the word and sometimes thinking it’s smarter to obfuscate. I wonder if you can provide some guidance. name withheld

Word-magic, in a variety of forms, it is a ubiquitous phenomenon: the simple act of pronouncing a word, we often think, can be an act of convocation. And so the verbal taboos, which all communities seem to develop, apply to both the sacred and the profane. Many Orthodox Jews consider God’s name too sacred to be pronounced in ordinary contexts and instead use the word “Hashem,” which literally means “the name”. (That all-too-sacred name is itself a stand-in for an even more sacred and truly ineffable name.) But words that have to do with sex or excrement, and associated body parts, are the most familiar candidates. We all know the words that cannot be said on television, under penalty of law. In Twi, my father’s first language Ghanaian, there is a word of apology you can say in advance: “sebe,” if you want to use a proscribed word. That’s not enough with the FCC

Logicians and linguists sometimes distinguish between using and mentioning a word. Use: “God, please show me the way.” Mention: “The word ‘God’ has three letters.” Decent people will obviously refrain from using ethnic slurs, “dysphemist” epithets, expressing contempt for some designated group. However, verbal taboos are more demanding: both use and mention are usually prohibited. Many posts, including this one, have a blanket censorship against, for example, using or mentioning the F-word. Should the N-word join the unspeakables?

No individual can simply override social and semantic norms and decide what the pronunciation of a word will mean.

Many would like it to be so. Fifteen years ago, the NAACP organized a word burial ceremony. (Awkwardly, the fourth letter of the organization’s name represents another now-avoided designation.) The prohibitionist case is that the word has been associated with horrendous cruelty and injustice, that it has been used to dehumanize and degrade, that it can, consequently, , inflict pain and produce a feeling of vulnerability. No matter how many quotation marks may surround the word, the argument goes, to utter it is to invoke the horrors of history. One thousand sebas it will not remove its sting.

But do efforts to make a word unspeakable diminish its power or magnify it? In the 1920s, Walter White, the future head of the NAACP, someone who personally investigated dozens of lynchings, insisted that the equanimity with which blacks received a new novel with the disputed word in its title was a sign of “how far away are we?” they have progressed.”

And sometimes words intended to stigmatize have been rehabilitated. When I was in school, “queer” was one of those tense dysphemisms. If you weren’t homophobic, you would have avoided the word. Then, throughout my life, the type of people he designated reclaimed the word, and the term “LGBTQ” gained popularity. The norms of social acceptance changed; so did the norms of verbal use. In the 1990s, there were black people, like hip-hop artist KRS-One, who advocated and anticipated the same development for the word we’re discussing. At the very least, they thought it would lose its ability to hurt when it became normal, its edges blunted by its banality. But the career of such words is difficult to predict.

It is true that, in a convention dating back more than a century, many black people have adopted a group use of the word, in a way that is now often marked in writing by ending with an “a” instead of a “er”. .” Some even claim that it is a different word. However, usage depends on knowing that the standard N-word is an insult. Precisely because it is off limits to outsiders, it can function as a shibboleth among certain black speakers, who use it more or less interchangeably with “boy” or “brother.” (It tends to be gendered this way.) The main rule of use has to do with who can use it. Hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar once invited a white woman from the audience to join him onstage to perform one of her songs, then stopped her when she didn’t skip the N-word, which appeared 20 times in the letter. It was off limits to her.

Should I be off limits? His goal, as he makes clear, is to discuss an episode of racial contempt, not to produce one. Now, some would say that African Americans have been so traumatized by the hateful uses of the word that the very sound of it causes anguish. Others do not find this to be a credible generalization; that simple psychological history is admittedly difficult to reconcile with the changing attitudes that can be traced within the black press over the generations. In addition, you have a pedagogical justification to offer.

The problem is that no individual can simply override social and semantic norms and decide what the pronunciation of a word will mean. You yourself understand that words have a performative effect. You don’t have to say the word to convey the information that Thurmond said it; you are aiming for a performative effect beyond factual content. He must recognize, then, that it would have another performative effect: It would announce that he had chosen to violate a norm to which his students primarily subscribed, and to defy a demand that many blacks have made. Some of your students will take it as a gesture of disrespect. They will ask you why you felt entitled to flout the taboo. Especially given the history of racism in this country, there’s a lot to be said for listening to Black people on issues like this and taking such lexical requests seriously.

Standards evolve over time. Efforts to banish such brotherly usage within the group have mostly failed: such complaints have been easily dismissed as “sadness,” primly classist or schoolteacher. Instead, a taboo on their expression by non-blacks has become even more entrenched. That there is reason to wonder if this is a sensible or healthy rule does not cancel the rule or give you the power to suspend it. So while you should feel free to discuss what Senator Thurmond said with his students, you should accept that saying those two syllables is likely to lead the class away from him.


Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at New York University. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Code of Honor,” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit an inquiry: Email [email protected]; or mail The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, NY 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)

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