N-word Incidents In Classrooms
Two very serious and upsetting incidents came to my attention recently during a Diablo for Peace organizing meeting on December 17, 2017.
Diablo for Peace (DFP) is a grassroots, youth activist committee of the established non-profit Mt. Diablo Peace and Justice Center. It was started in Walnut Creek by Walnut Creek natives—Emmy, Andrew, and me—and Las Lomas high school graduates in the summer of 2017.
This East Bay community is not far from the highly liberal Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco, where of DFP’s lead organizers went to college or currently work, yet amidst the high-end brunch eateries, the sports cars, and pristine, white faces, there lie countless problematic underpinnings—namely, toxic masculinity, racism, and sexism—just like any other American city.
The incidents have to do with teaching racism in the classroom environment as socially acceptable, thereby perpetuating it to impressionable young people, thereby hurting and offending black people and their allies.
I was organizing and planning social issue youth action events with DFP. The estrogen was palpable. Seven present, all women—three high school students, three college students, and two lead organizers, including myself. We were on the topic of creating tangible change in our community via inclusive education. Inclusive education means gearing schools, classrooms, programs, and lessons toward the full participation, inclusion, and representation of each and every student and thinking beyond classroom norms to actively involve all students. Effective instruction acknowledges students' gender differences, special needs, and reaffirms their cultural, ethnic, and linguistic heritages, ensuring that all students have the resources to be successful.
The importance of culturally responsive and inclusive curriculum goes beyond race and ethnicity. It builds a sense of community, helps students develop a sense of belonging, and teaches respect (“Inclusive Education and its Benefits”). Via inclusive education, compassion and humanity can be relayed in a classroom setting. This may occur, for example, when majority students relate to minority students. Students learn that people who don’t look like them face similar social, emotional, economic, political, and physical struggles. They learn to relate to people from different backgrounds—that physical and mental differences aren’t grounds for exclusion or ridicule. These valuable lessons garnered through inclusive education combat xenophobia and encourages global perspectives (Saravia-Shore).
On the other hand, non-inclusive curricula with respect to sex and race comes in various forms. For example, curricula that includes: books exclusively authored by white men, racialized power dynamics, excessive violence toward women, and minorities (including women) lacking autonomy and represented only in subservient roles. This type of curriculum is detrimental in that it perpetuates negative stereotypes, especially if teachers do not enforce critical thinking around the negativity underlying these themes.
...white savior books reinforce the extremely demeaning and derogatory notion that indigenous, black, and brown people exist only to serve the needs, goals and aspirations of white people - which when read could increase students' stress levels, while also negatively impacting their self-esteem and limiting their ability to see themselves as powerful agents of change in the world. (Enjeti)
Within the context of our discussion, we were in agreement that inclusive education meant incorporating books and lessons that celebrate people of color and women in a positive light in classes such as English, Literature, Contemporary Issues, and History (as much as possible granted our selection of History textbooks rife with erasure of the true struggles of black and brown people and women and weak celebration of their triumphs). This is something that I felt as a high schooler from 2007-2011 and that DFP’s high schoolers feel—that the textbooks taught aren’t sufficiently celebrating people of color and women.
In the midst of this topic, Lucy a junior at Northgate High School, told us that her white, female teacher held an activity in which pairs of students said the n-word to one another. This happened while covering the historical fiction novel The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. Everybody in the class refused to participate, except for two male, self-proclaimed white supremacists.
Why would this happen? Morrison, a black woman, wrote The Bluest Eye in 1970; it depicts racism, sexism, incest, child molestation (rape), sexuality in various forms, and features profane language, including the n-word. The teacher could have been using the activity to attempt to transform hateful language and educate students, a technique professors utilize, such as Dr. Emily Bernard professor of English and Critical Race and Ethnic Studies at the University of Vermont. She is a black woman who swallows her visceral reaction to her students’ use of the word in the name of education (Bernard). She actively chooses to have students use and critically think about the word.
To my surprise, Laila, a Las Lomas High School senior at the meeting had a similar story to relate. While teaching The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, her white, male teacher said the n-word in class. The Invisible Man is yet another classic American literature that features the n-word.
In both instances, Lucy and Laila stayed after class to tell their teachers that they were uncomfortable and outraged—with the male teacher’s choice to use the racial slur and with the female teacher’s decision to hold the activity allowing students to use the racial slur in a formative environment.
Like Lucy’s teacher, Laila’s isn’t the type that chooses the eradicationist response of neglecting or removing the n-word from academia, a technique utilized by some teachers and publishing companies. On the flip side, censorship opponents may be of the mind that eradication of the term is defacement of American literature, a blow to freedom of speech, or erasure of America’s racist past (Avila).
Why Lucy’s teacher thought it appropriate to hold this activity, I’m not sure.
In classrooms across the United States, treatment of the n-word is a controversial topic (PBS). What these Northgate and Las Lomas teachers failed to do was properly assess and address the classroom’s social context before diving into racialized practices. Public School Review offers demographics on these school’s Black population: Northgate 2% and Las Lomas 2%, compared to the top three populations of White, Asian, and Hispanic at 23%, 59%, and 11% for Northgate; 16%, 67%, and 11% for Las Lomas. Granted this minority black context, a teacher practicing inclusive education—especially one representing the majority population—should take necessary precautions around and deeply meditate upon the lesson plan for a racialized text.
What I call into question is the teachers’ abilities to set a standard for classroom culture when teaching racialized books that creates an effective learning environment for all students. I expect that the teachers did not premeditate teaching and learning strategies sensitive to the social history and everyday lives of minority students and their cultures in order to assist them in their learning process. Every teacher must assess whether a lesson plan will embarrass or single out a student. This is how students felt in Lucy and Laila’s classrooms.
Teachers who teach in this manner seem to lack the skills, attitudes, and knowledge necessary to create a healthy and inclusive classroom. This is a broader critique of Las Lomas’ and Northgate’s classroom standards as well, as these were only two reported instances, and we can only imagine what goes unreported and left for students to process internally.
A pitfall of the education system in such classes is that the teachers, supposedly “experts” on the book and its themes, do not know and do not use the most effective teaching practices when dealing with sensitive topics. Two students talked to the teacher after class in these aforementioned instances, but how many others were hurt and said nothing? In how many other classes did these two teachers—and other misinformed teachers outside of Las Lomas and Northgate—teach that the n-word is accessible to all people, not just Black people? And finally, how many non-Black students left the classroom thinking that they could use the n-word as currency for racial hate crimes, verbal or non-verbal?
Without proper education, students mimic racism and many other “isms” learned in the classroom, among other places. All teachers in the Mt. Diablo Unified School District go through anti-bias training, but it’s not enough. Students must be taught at this level, and in my humble opinion even sooner, about the ethnic, cultural, gender, physical, mental, and sexual orientation-based realities of minorities in a positive way. This type of inclusive education could combat what we saw happen after the 2016 election with the rise of reported hate crimes with racial or ethnic bias (“FBI: US Hate Crimes Rise for Second Straight Year”). The seeds for hate crimes are planted in microaggressions.
Dr. Derald Wing Sue explains microaggressions in everyday life, “Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership” (Sue). Microaggressions targeted at racial minorities, women, LGBTQ+, those with disabilities, etc. are a huge stress factor for minorities. It is well documented that when one is a minority in any setting, microaggressions are stress factors that can mess with a person’s ability to learn effectively.
There’s a lot evidence to suggest that overt racism and discrimination lead to worse health outcomes for people of color. Researchers at Columbia University have found that the experience of racism can result in traumatic stress. This stress is linked to negative mental health outcomes, such as depression, anger, physical reactions, avoidance, intrusion, hypervigilance, and low self-esteem. (Torino)
This means that women of color, who find themselves at the intersection of female and person of color, face more race-and-gender-triggered stress. The same is said for anyone with multiple minority intersections. Microaggressions cause stereotype threat. Stereotype threat is when a minority who is made aware of their minority position (a woman in an engineering class, a black person in an advanced placement class) performs worse than they would have had their attention not been called to their minority status in fear of contributing to the stereotype.
Knowing these facts, having studied them in the context of social psychology, lived the harsh reality, and done extensive research on the topic personally, I was beyond shocked, frustrated, and angered with Lucy and Laila’s teachers. I felt that my peers and fellow community members, people who should have it better than I did, and even sisters in a sense, were mistreated, unsupported, and left unempowered. No lesson should make a student feel this way, and I am just a third person removed from the situation empathizing with young students.
The fact of the matter is, in Walnut Creek high school districts, most required reading is about white people. If they feature people of color, they are in servitude roles, go through trauma such as rape, and are bullied because of their race or ethnicity (racial slurs galore), among other negative life experiences. This is because the books with minorities usually depict American slavery and/or abuse of people of color and women.
Is there no literature depicting empowered minorities historically or in modern times consumable by our education system and the high school level? Why are we not making the shift in our required reading toward empowering minorities if we are seeing and doing that in our everyday lives in the media, in the workplace, etc.?
What these classrooms need are teachers in tune with the social issues of today, sensitive to the hardships of people of color, and aware of the privilege of white people in comparison to people of color. They need to have curricula that would be approved by the parents of students of color who are currently in the class, meaning have an open dialogue with parents, show them the list of prospective books and related curriculum, and take feedback. They need to be aware of the hate crimes occurring on their own campus, other campuses, and the whole country, and act as defenders of the students. They won’t be able to shield them from the horrors beyond the classroom, but they can at least control the environment and assure a safe space for students of color facing bullying in the outside world. There, they can teach students valuable lessons on empathy, compassion, and respect for all people. With student, parent, teacher, and administration backing inclusive curricula, these lessons would be invaluable and formative. No student will have to stay after class to explain that they felt oppressed after a lesson.
There exist amazing, inclusive, and empowering lesson plans for teaching racialized books, it’s the teacher’s job to self-educate and practice inclusive education. Examples of best practices include: not expecting one individual or group to be spokespersons for their race, gender, etc; depending on the classroom demographics, speaking privately to black students or other students as needed before beginning the unit, setting ground rules for a discussion prior to having it, e.g. no name-calling, put-downs, and total respect for all viewpoints; prefacing a racialized text featuring the n-word and negative African American stereotypes with a lesson about the history and culture of African Americans before slavery through African heritage and literature (Carr and Forchion).
The point of teaching inclusive curricula is not to hide the history of violence and abuse that people of color have faced in the US, it is to move forward from it. It means showcasing everyday accomplishments of people of color and other minorities—actually painting reality as is and history as it was too. How are white people and people of color going to learn about the ordinary to grand accomplishments of people of color if we do not start teaching inclusive curricula at or before the high school level?
In college, one has to literally elect to take classes such as Black History, Asian American Studies, and Gender and Women’s Studies to be exposed to the everyday life of people of color or women of color who have not had traumatic life experiences. Not surprisingly, those electing classes such as these are often of that ethnic group or sex. With the education system as it stands, it is their job to learn more about minorities. The rest of us can be complicit in our education of minority life—it is socially acceptable to do so.
This sad truth largely affects young students’ perceptions of minorities, and these perceptions carry on into adult life. Until students devoid of racial awareness are exposed to more minorities, say, by attending a predominantly Asian American or Black college or moving into a metropolitan city with high diversity, they will hold on to their negative stereotypes of minorities, which was likely partially determined by their non-inclusive required reading material in school. Some never let go of the ignorance.
Avila, Juan C. “The Word That Must Not Be Said”. Cipher Magazine, 13 Mar 2017. Web. 3 May 2018.
Bernard, Emily. “Teaching the N-Word.” University Musical Society, 11 Jan 2018. Web. 2 May 2018.
Enjeti, Anjali. “It’s Time to Diversify and Decolonise Our Schools’ Reading Lists.” Aljazeera. 19 Mar 2018. Web. 28 May 2018.
“FBI: US Hate Crimes Rise for Second Straight Year.” BBC. 13 Nov 2017. Web. 28 May 2018.
Carr, Matthew, and Sandy Forchion. “Huck Finn in Context: The Curriculum.” KQED. WGBH Educational Foundation. 1999. Web. 4 May 2018.
“Inclusive Education and its Benefits”. NABCL. Web. 4 May 2018.
“Las Lomas High School.” PublicSchoolReview.com. Web. 21 June 2019.
“Northgate High School.” PublicSchoolReview.com. Web. 21 June 2019.
Saravia-Shore, Marietta. “Diverse Teaching Strategies for Diverse Learners.” Educating Everybody's Children: Diverse Teaching Strategies for Diverse Learners, Revised and Expanded 2nd Edition. Cole, Robert W. ASCD. Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development. 2008. Web. 4 May 2018.
Sue, Derald Wing, Ph. D. “Microaggressions: More than Just Race: Can microaggressions be directed at women or gay people?” Psychology Today. 10 Nov 2010. Web. 23 Jun 2018.
Torino, Gina. “How racism and microaggressions lead to worse health.” Center for Health Journalism. 10 Nov 2017. Web. 23 Jun 2018.