Part of teaching the history of the United States is teaching the history of ideologies of white supremacy and their institutional expressions. And one of the techniques of white supremacy has been the dehumanization of non-whites with racist language. Because of slavery and the centrality of anti-blackness to white supremacist ideas, the “n-word” remains probably the most charged, taboo word in American English. It’s important that students understand this. But should we, as instructors, ever actually say the word out loud?
This week, recapping the Civil War and discussing Reconstruction, this issue came up every day. In my lecture notes the word is everywhere. It is there in a Democratic float in New York prior to the election of Abraham Lincoln as president, where a banner reads “free lover and free niggers will certainly elect Old Abe.” It is there when President Andrew Johnson calls out a crowd, “What does the veto mean?” after vetoing 19th century civil rights legislation, and hears back “It is keeping the nigger down.” And it is there in a conversation between a planer and a freedman: the planter says “You lazy nigger, I am losing a whole day’s labor by you,” and the freedman replies “Massa, how many days’ labor have I lost by you?” The word is about social and racial ordering; and that ordering is encoded in the speech act itself.
So how do I, as the instructor, read these lines? When quoting racist sources and documents, should I pronounce the word or not? A case for doing so might go something like this: I show students plenty of other racist content. I show Democratic party posters arguing against the Freedmen’s Bureau with offensive caricatures of lazy blacks. I show clips from Birth of a Nation, putting the Dunning School on screen. In doing so, I prepare my students and trust my students to be adults, able to read and analyze the way that racism operates to create political power. Reading the “n-word” out loud—while of course explaining how it functions as a slur—would perhaps communicate that power better than avoiding it. The comedian Louis C.K., one of whose comedic specialties is to find ways to say things through comedy that could not otherwise be said in public, argues against the “n-word” euphemism in this very profane bit, saying that when you use the “n-word” you just make the other person use the actual slur in their own head.
Perhaps the shock of saying it out loud could be an important lesson for students in the nature of white supremacy. And maybe, for the right instructor, and given the right setting, these considerations would prove dispositive.
But, in the end, I decided against saying it. There were several reasons arrayed against doing so. First, the obvious: I’m a white instructor, and I don’t want to offend any of my students. Obviously I would hope that they could deal with the Quinean distinction between the use of a word and mentioning it as part of a quote. But given that we are not always granted our students’ full attention, there seemed some risk of being misunderstood. Second, and more seriously, our students take cues from us all the time about what is and is not acceptable in-class behavior. If I quote a slur, however carefully, I run the risk of having a student do the same—but perhaps less carefully than I would.
Third, and finally, I decided that I could teach another historical lesson by not using the word. The “n-word” is not shocking to our students—it’s a common enough part of popular culture. But the word, even though it is the same “word” as was used in the 19th century, has been transformed by reclamation and reworking. Though students generally know that the word is offensive, my sense is that many of them do not fully grasp why that should be the case—that it was language designed to dehumanize blacks and enforce codes of white supremacy. In my particular case, the majority of my students are Mexican American, and most have grown up in the relatively isolated El Paso area. The ways in which their lives are affected and structured by anti-blackness is not immediately clear to most of them, given the absence of large numbers of either black or indeed white people. As such, the codes and tropes of anti-black racism are frequently unfamiliar—even the virulent racism of Birth of a Nation was not immediately legible to all of them. And though these circumstances may be unusual, I think a lack of awareness around these issues is probably faced by instructors around the country. By refusing to speak racist language, even in quotation, I can perhaps send some small message about the seriousness of these issues, and about the power of history to construct our emotional landscapes, even after centuries.