In Lesson 12 in this unit, the “N” word appears in two primary sources (the readings A Teacher Describes Violence and Intimidation (1875) and Election Day in Clinton, Mississippi (1875). In these documents, we have chosen to let the word remain as it originally appeared, without any substitution.
In life and in school, many students will encounter language that has been historically used to perpetuate racism and/or dehumanize people. Such language might be used to intentionally cause offense, it might be something they encounter in lessons, when reading literature or historical texts, and it might also be something that some marginalized groups have reclaimed and now use to express familiarity and friendship.
Teaching a text that includes racist slurs, derogatory words and/or anachronistic language can elicit fear and anxiety in educators. As educators, we know that unless we prepare to address language with intention and care, we risk causing harm and creating inhospitable classroom environments where students may feel like they do not belong, and where they cannot learn. Some racist and dehumanizing terms, such as the ‘N-word’, have the power to destabilize a classroom environment if they are encountered without adequate preparation or groundwork. In her talk Why It’s So Difficult to Talk about the ‘N’ Word, Dr. Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor states: “I hear from students that when the word is said during a lesson without discussion and context, it poisons the entire classroom environment, the trust between student and teacher is broken (11.31).”
Such terms can also make students who belong to the groups targeted feel uncomfortable and singled out. In her talk, Dr. Stordeur Pryor goes on to state that, “My black students tell me that when the word is spoken or quoted in class, they feel like a giant spotlight is shining on them (12.32).”
The dehumanizing power and loaded history of the N-word cannot be ignored, nor can the impact it can have on students if not handled sensitively. We advise against speaking this word out loud in the classroom, but if it appears in texts or resources that are being used, it is necessary to acknowledge it, understand its problematic nature, and set guidelines for students when reading aloud or quoting from the text (e.g., to say “the N-word” when students encounter the word spelled out in full in a text). Otherwise, the presence of this word might both harm students and distract them from an open discussion on a particular topic. If you realize that you will be asking students to hear, process, and discuss passages with dehumanizing language on a regular basis, however, it is important to reflect on the purpose of the text and its cost to students’ emotional well-being.