Colleges should develop guidelines for using the N-word in classes (opinion)

Amid the many extraordinary protests against anti-Black racism after the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery during spring 2020, one long-standing debate in higher education has come to the fore again: Who can say the N-word in classrooms? Inside Higher Ed most recently reported on this ongoing controversy here.

This spring at Stanford University, two non-Black professors read aloud the N-word in class from a lyric and a historic text. Those two events highlighted several important questions: Is reading a text with the N-word genuinely necessary for historical veracity and educational purposes? What is the best way to teach the history that surrounds the N-word? Who can use the N-word in class? Who should choose not to say it?

In a letter of admirable rhetorical force, a group of Black students at Stanford made the case that given the history of violence associated with the N-word, “non-Black people do not have license to use the word.” Let’s be clear here: the students weren’t requesting original texts be suppressed or expurgated, or for history to be told in some light euphemistic version. Rather, they were asking for non-Black professors to consider a more thoughtful and respectful approach.

Some college instructors and administrators have disagreed. Detractors have accused these students of censorship and privileging Black people.

The three main objections to any restriction on saying the N-word involve concerns about:

  • Contravening the First Amendment and academic freedom;
  • The loss of historical or textual authenticity; and
  • Creating a slippery slope to a “cancel culture” and the privileging of certain groups.

To address those concerns, college and university guidelines for faculty members and students might help. Guidelines are not legally binding prohibitions. Rather, they offer ethical, social and civil approaches to offensive language in the classroom. Institutions can write them in ways to encourage prosocial behavior without curtailing free speech and academic freedom or devolving into accusations and shaming.

Legally, people can use slurs in a university setting. In 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in favor of free speech specifically with regard to anti-Black slurs or actions. In R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, the Court unanimously struck down the city of St. Paul’s Bias-Motivated Crime Ordinance and reversed the conviction of a teenager for burning a cross on the lawn of an African American family, arguing that the First Amendment protects cross burning as freedom of speech. Such legal protection was widely discussed in 2016 when a football fan at the University of Wisconsin at Madison wore a costume of President Barack Obama with a noose around his neck. University police officers asked the fan to remove the noose, and the University of Wisconsin issued the following statement: “The costume, while repugnant and counter to the values of the university and athletic department, was an exercise of the individual’s right to free speech.”

One can challenge the Supreme Court decision of 1992, and one can show the gap between theories of free speech and actual experiences and access to free speech, but as far as the law is concerned, free speech activists need not fear legal incursions into their rights. Virginia v. Black essentially affirmed the Court’s position on free speech and anti-Black racism in 2003.

Yet while one is free to use the N-word, one can also choose to avoid the word precisely in order to promote better learning. Indeed, classroom guidelines that promote respect and civility have proven pedagogically effective. Students retain more in classrooms that are civil, and refraining from using the N-word is an exercise in civility.

Respect and civility are common terms in guidelines in nursing and medical school programs, as well as in many professional associations. Some observers may object however that “respect” and especially “civility” are ambiguous, historically burdened categories. The former is a normative Kantian term. And people have criticized the latter, “civility,” as a diversion or cudgel that can be misused. Those who are uncomfortable with these terms may find “inclusivity” and “empathy” more appealing. In fact, many faculty members already use “inclusivity” and “empathy” in their classroom and syllabi to ensure that a diversity of identities and opinions can be shared in class. Whichever words one prefers, inclusivity and empathy serve the same semantic principle as respect and civility, despite leaning more toward a Humean rather than a Kantian framework.

Were a college or university to offer guidelines in classrooms regarding the N-word, they could be written as recommendations open to further discussions. For example, let’s say one such recommendation might be:

“Out of respect for African American faculty members and students, non-Black members of the community should consider refraining from reading or writing the N-word in any of its unmitigated variations in the classroom. Black instructors, however, whose ancestors were subjugated under the N-word and whose community continues to endure racist enunciations of the slur, may consider whether they want to use the term in their classroom and, if so, they are encouraged to reflect carefully on their usage of the word with students.”

Allowing a Black instructor to decide whether or not to say the N-word promotes liberty as well respect and civility. Similarly, a non-Black faculty member retains the legal right and personal choice to say the offending word or words, but why would they insist? What pedagogical end would such a demand serve? It is pedagogically possible to teach history in all of its violent, cruel realities associated with this word without actually saying it. There is no moment where a brute historical or textual positivism is essential to learning. Nor is pouncing on a teacher who missteps an opportunity for better understanding. Indeed, the latter is too often a misplaced effort to showcase one’s own allyship and antiracist credentials.

Here are some recent examples of what faculty members can do to avoid such collisions. Are students reading “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr.? Consider the tone-deafness of a non-Black teacher reading aloud the N-word from such a letter, especially in that famous passage of anaphoric “whens” as King invites others to empathize with the Black experience. Such a teacher need not be fired — just be more thoughtful and respectful. Are students reading Huckleberry Finn? None of this book’s historical or literary veracity will be lost if a faculty member invites discussions about Mark Twain’s use of the N-word while abbreviating it.

Imagine the spellings “N-word” or “n****a” as analogous rhetorical strategies to ones some students and teachers deploy for religious reasons when they abbreviate the word “G-d.” When people explain the abbreviation, nonreligious audiences grasp the word’s meaning, no biblical or communal or personal imperatives are contravened, and everyone enjoys the opportunity to be civil, inclusive and empathetic. Even someone who is uncomfortable with such an abbreviation would not feel their rights diminished if they merely avoided saying the word in class out of respect for others. Good manners, civility, religious liberty — these are all solid American traditions.

Now visualize John Stuart Mill rolling over in his 19th-century British grave. For this Industrial-era English philosopher, adulthood required being willing to hear slurs and take the name of one’s own or others’ deities in vain. But the fact is that neither the 21st-century world nor a university is perfectly Millian, and that’s a good thing. In the examples above, Black teachers and students retain sovereignty over their history, and religious people their faith, as well. Both inclusive measures are essential to the pedagogical mission of a college or university.

Our classrooms and other institutional units already have guidelines that are not legally enforced but shape the parameters for discussion, just as all debate forums have their own guidelines. Guidelines can be written to promote choice, enable better communication and become a helpful discussion tool for instructors and students in tense situations.

Beyond the social unrest of this spring, we now live in culturally volatile times, which is all the more reason to equip participants for a mutually respectful conversation that avoids shaming battles in class. Students, like faculty members, have their own legal right to free speech and to speak out in class, but they also have a choice to employ civil and empathetic practices. Guidelines, however they might be written to encourage participants to choose such practices, will benefit both instructors and students.

Inside Higher Ed