Teaching the N-word

Dos and don’ts

Hello friends,

I’m going to be upfront and say that if it were up to me, the n-word would be expunged from every dictionary in every language. I am not interested in using or reclaiming something that was created to demean and oppress my ancestors and is still being used that way. However, I’m not the boss of every Black person, and some people feel differently. I have to accept that, however reluctantly.

This came to mind because of an issue that’s surfaced a few times recently, where teachers are teaching books by Black authors that use the word. In many cases, the teachers read it out and have their students do the same. Often, many of these teachers are white, with some Black students in the room.

My take: this is NEVER acceptable. That word is inflammatory and hurtful and should never be read out in a classroom. It makes the space inherently unsafe both for Black kids and white kids. If you don’t believe me, try putting yourself in the shoes of kids in the playground when a white kid repeats the word that the teacher has given legitimacy by having it read out - it will NOT go well. Or try being one of the few Black kids in the room getting unwelcome attention as white folks read the word out loud, seemingly with relish. Ugh!

So does that mean we should ban all books that contain the word?

Not at all. Black authors will use terms that reflect what’s used by or against them - nothing wrong with that. White authors who should probably know better may also use the word - eye roll. And there are some “classics” that are littered with it. By all means teach the books, but you have to do it mindfully, and you don’t need to read the n-word out loud.

Here’s a better approach:

  • Explain the origin of the n-word.

  • Explain why it’s harmful.

  • Explain why you’re NOT reading it out and why it should NEVER cross a white person’s lips.

In other words, put it into context, situate it in history and share how it’s being used now. Talk about language and harm, and think about other questionable harmful words. Help your students find alternatives that are less harmful or, even better, not harmful at all. Raise the awareness of your kids - and your own awareness as a teacher.

I get it - some teachers haven’t figured out how to navigate these waters. It’s probably not totally their fault if they’ve come up in an education system where systemic racism and the history of the oppression of Black people have never been fully addressed. However, it is the 21st century, information is at everyone’s fingertips, and there’s no longer an excuse for not knowing. Ignorance is a choice.

Parents, you also have the same choice. Don’t hide books that highlight the experience of Black people from your kids. By doing that you may contribute to a narrative that there’s something shameful about the Black experience. Instead, welcome the additional insight, and put it into the proper context.

If you’re looking for a starting point to enhance your knowledge, check out Elizabeth Leiba’s Black History and Culture Academy and Mission Equality’s Equaliversity.

I know that not all Black people will agree with me. That’s ok, because we are not a monolith. This is my perspective - thanks for reading it.


© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2022. All Rights Reserved.

Cover photo courtesy of Canva

I am an anti-racism writer, educator and activist, Co-Founder of Mission Equality the author of “I’m Tired of Racism”, and co-host of The Introvert Sisters podcast. If you value my perspective, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription.

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