By Sarae Simpson.
I enrolled in a class about the history of human rights and race in America last fall during my last semester at Boise State. I was excited to analyze America’s history regarding racial justice and hoped it would be a class fostering crucial conversations about how far, or how not far at all, we have come. I expected us to examine the long history of racial injustice through conversations mediated by a professor who is well educated on the topic and capable of guiding the class in dismantling preconceptions or prejudices.
One of the first lectures focused on Idaho’s history of blackface and Ku Klux Klan rallies through a PowerPoint of images showing multitudes of instances where white people, including university professors, engaged in blackface. I understood the importance of accurately showing history as it occurred and not downplaying the foundational and systemic racism occurring. Soon, an image showed Idaho State University professors performing blackface with the title of the play captioned, including the N-word.
As its authentic title, I understand the importance of showing the picture and how blatantly the professors used a slur in the title. However, I was stunned as my professor, a white woman, breezed through the title, enunciating the “N-word” with no hesitation and the utmost boldness, and further disturbed that I seemed to be the only student fazed. The class lecture continued without her even bothering to explain why she would use the word herself, no matter the pronunciation, or even break down the volatile semantics and history of the slur.
A non-black professor using the most racialized and volatile slur in any form, especially in an academic setting, normalizes the use for white students and fails to engage in a learning dynamic to dismantle ignorance. Non-black people do not receive a pass to use the “N-word,” and the lesson would have held the same meaning if replaced simply with the “N-word” when spoken.
A white professor showing the history of the Ku Klux Klan and blackface in Idaho holds a valuable opportunity to blatantly depict Idaho in its full racialized history. However, a white professor sharing an identity with the white women in blackface does not come close to explaining why a professor still finds it appropriate to reassert the same oppressive verbiage in a modern university classroom.
The lesson did not include disassembling the semantics of the word, instead merely dropping the “N-word” nonchalantly and continuing the lecture. The word was written on the slide. All of the students present saw it and read it.
Professors need to portray what happened in the past, but this does not warrant invoking a slur. Good teaching does require talking about the richest, nastiest and most complex ranges of meaning in the English language.
Boise State is grotesquely lacking in racial diversity and most classrooms are white-dominant. Students of color — especially when they are the only person of color in the room during discussions on race — should never be subjected to faculty and staff using racial slurs during the process of their education.
We should not avoid holding these crucial conversations, discussing the power of words or learning about the context of certain language and diction. The “N-word” in context does hold explanatory value. The usage of the “N-word” should not be complicated. As white people, we need to accept that perhaps in all of our privilege, in our dominant social position and power, there is one word we do not get to participate in using, and that is OK.
A university professor using a racial slur utilizes the very same tools of oppression used historically to maintain oppression and deny agency.
We do not need a white professor to enunciate a slur for the “shock factor” or a “chilling effect,” and it is demeaning to believe that is necessary. As Ta-Nehisi Coates stated, “When you’re white in this country, you’re taught everything belongs to you.” That includes language.
A professor teaching a class on human rights and race in America holds a unique position, especially in a white-dominant classroom, to break down and dismantle the normalization of slurs, but instead, I experienced a professor with a doctorate degree displaying that she has the privilege to selectively dabble in volatile language for “honest context.”
White people and especially white professors supposedly fostering the space to engage with and dismantle flawed logic fail their students when they refuse to confront their own racist behaviors or consider criticism toward the power of even subliminal racial bias. I am advocating for a space where white fragility, especially in white women, can be examined and critiqued, from one white woman to another.