Classrooms grapple with racial slurs in classic novels


The recent dismissal of a white New York teacher for reading aloud the “N word” from a Mark Twain novel has highlighted the use of racist slurs in American classrooms.
It has reignited a long-standing debate about how the books of some of America’s most famous authors should be taught in an age when racial injustice matters.
After years of hearing the term read in the texts of writers such as Twain and William Faulkner, students are increasingly taking a stand.
“There was no reason I had to go to my classroom and hear this insult,” said Dylan Gilbert, recalling the time in 2019 when his white English professor at the University of Michigan said the term by reciting a passage from Faulkner.
Gilbert, who is black, walked out of the classroom.
“It was like a reminder that even if I had arrived in Michigan, I still wouldn’t have the same opportunity for a safe learning environment as my white peers,” she told the AFP.
The problem came to the fore last month when Hannah Berliner Fischthal, who is white, left St. John’s University in Queens, New York.
She apologized after upsetting several students by uttering the racial insult aloud while reading an excerpt from Twain’s 1894 book Pudd’nhead Wilson – after first explaining the context of the word in Twain’s text and having said that she hoped it wouldn’t cause offense.
The incident came after another professor, also white, this time at Duquesne University in Pennsylvania, was fired for using the insult during a class.
“The word has such a history and such a psychological and emotional impact that just hearing the word, for some people, can be disruptive,” said Arizona State University English professor Neal Lester, which is black.
Derived from a Latin word, it became widely used in 18th-century America, in part to dehumanize African Americans and view them as an inferior race.
Lester says he never says the word in his class.
Vershawn Young, a black communication teacher, has a different point of view.
When in June 2020, his employer, the University of Waterloo, announced that the word was banned on campus, Young refused to adhere to the new rule.
“When I read a text, I say the word,” he told AFP. “When the students quote the text, they too are free to say what they have read. However, they can also replace the word with its understatement. What they can’t do is ignore it.
Young says he always prepares his students for what happens so they don’t get shocked.
“Apart from the quotes, I do not use the word because I recognize my authority in relation to the multiple sensibilities embodied by my students,” he added.
In an article in The Conversation last year, Young wrote that his campus ban censored black professors like him.
“I belong to several black communities, where we use the N word in six or seven culturally rich ways,” he wrote, adding that his ban “serves the purposes of white supremacy.”
Over the past several decades, it has been culturally acceptable for blacks to use the word. We hear it regularly in discussions, movies or music, hip-hop songs being the most obvious example.
“Hearing a non-black person say that the N word is always offensive and harmful to me,” said Gilbert, the student who objected to his white teacher using it.
“(But) I have no problem with black people saying it. In my opinion, the word is never violent or threatening to me when it comes out of the mouth of a black person, ”she added.
Wendy Kaminer, a lawyer and writer who was once a board member of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that “the distinction between citing a racial insult and using a racial insult has been completely erased.”
“I think it’s quite problematic,” she told AFP.
Kaminer says the word’s disappearance from college campuses is part of a larger trend that began in the 1990s to ban other terms, including those related to sexuality and minorities.
She believes that the United States, where free speech is enshrined in the constitution, is moving towards a more Western European approach to regulating what people can and cannot say.
For Lester, a professor at Arizona State University, the answer is to talk about the word and its complex history without speaking it.
“I’ve had a lot of class conversations around the word without actually saying it,” he said.
“That in itself is not a huge intellectual gymnastics routine.”


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