As our societal landscape has gone through shifts and changes over the centuries, the American people have slowly adjusted their public behaviors to reflect our progress. In the wake of anti bullying campaigns, language is being scrutinized more than ever and, in some cases, rightfully so. The schoolyard chant of “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” has gone the way of the dinosaur, because with technology and social media being the major form of communication most young people use, words have indeed become weapons.
Should We Ban “the n-word” in Schools?
Numerous schools are implementing new standards as to permissible behavior for it’s students, some even advocating for the “banning”of certain words. Within those standards, an argument to ban the n-word from all schools is a familiar and highly supported notion.
On the surface, it makes complete sense. The n-word, a word born out of pure ignorance and hate, has been used as a weapon to attack Black people since race-based slavery began on this continent 400 years ago. Earlier this year, I wrote about what it means when white people call us the n-word:
“When white people say nigger, it’s saying ‘Black thing, you don’t belong.’ It is an attack on a Black person’s humanity, and not in a hyperbolic way. When white people call Black people nigger, it is their clarion call for Making America Great Again; That time where, less than 60 years ago, you could hang a Black body up in a tree just because you wanted to. For kicks, you could cut off their genitalia or cut out the baby growing inside them. You could take a picture of all this, and send it across the nation to your white relatives as a keepsake or as a postcard, inviting them to join you the next time. It was common practice. It was accepted. It was supported by law enforcement. It was encouraged and championed.”
This, alone, is enough argument for us to regulate the word in every environment, ESPECIALLY schools. Young, malleable minds should never be encouraged to freely toss such venom around without consequence.
Yet, I still make an argument in DEFENSE of the n-word coming out of the mouths of Black people. Maybe not at school, of course—it’s akin to an expletive in that regard—but Black children who grow up in a culture where that word has been reclaimed, remixed, and repurposed for their personal use in their communities have the RIGHT to this kind of language. If we were to ban it from schools for EVERYONE, which means we end up punishing EVERYONE for saying it, we are being intellectually dishonest about the context and use of the word.
This is a complete disservice to and highly disrespectful toward Black American culture. It erases the herculean feat Black people in this country have accomplished, by literally turning the singular word meant to destroy us into something we use on OUR terms. It also cripples children of other races; How are they to learn self control, common sense, and respect boundaries if the use and punishment for the word is equal among all children?
Author Ta-nehisi Coates brilliantly makes the point about context and relationship when we employ language:
“Coates first pointed out that it is normal in our culture for some people or groups to use certain words that others can’t. For example, his wife calls him ‘honey’; it would not be acceptable, he said, for strange women to do the same. Similarly, his dad was known by his family back home as Billy — but it would be awkward for Coates to try to use that nickname for his father. ‘That’s because the relationship between myself and my dad is not the same as the relationship between my dad and his mother and his sisters who he grew up with,’ Coates said.
‘We understand that.’ The same concept applies to different groups and their words. “My wife, with her girl friend, will use the word ‘bitch,’” Coates said. “I do not join in. You know what I’m saying? I don’t do that. I don’t do that. And perhaps more importantly, I don’t have a desire to do it.”
Therein lies the crux of the problem: the word itself really isn’t the issue, ladies and gentlemen. The issue is that white people DESIRE to say the word, and do not want to be told they can’t do something that Black people are allowed to do. ESPECIALLY if it’s something they created to hurt us, then we flipped the script and empowered ourselves with it, and now THEY are punished for using it.
People also love to prop up rap music and hip-hop as the evergreen, overpowering force that makes the n-word fly recklessly from the mouths of non-Black people. Just a few weeks ago, consistently problematic Latina actress Gina Rodriguez was a twitter trending topic, stemming from her use of the n-word while singing along to a Lauryn Hill verse on her IG Live video. The actress apologized, but a debate began about how Latino people should be given a pass because they are also a minority, and it’s ok for non-Black minorities to say it, ESPECIALLY if it was part of a song.
I don’t know about you dear reader, but I grew up on hip-hop, even though my mother was never a fan of the language. Throughout the entirety of my hip-hop life, EVEN INTO ADULTHOOD, I have managed to recite hundreds of verses while self-censoring every curse word and n-word around her. Why? Because I respect my mother. I know these words—no matter what *I* mean by them—make her uncomfortable. So, I actively choose NOT to say them when I am in her presence. Are we expected to believe white people and non-Black people of color lack the ability to do the same? That their comprehension of context is inferior? That their multitasking skills are lacking? If we choose to ban the word for everyone, just because white and non-Black people can’t control themselves, hey—it’s a fair claim.
The Problem Isn’t the Word
In his interview, Coates makes another great point: “The question one must ask is why so many white people have difficulty extending things that are basic laws of how human beings interact to Black people.” Maybe it is because they don’t respect Black people’s right to set boundaries; Maybe it’s because they don’t respect Black people’s right to exist differently or Black people’s ability to do something they cannot. Maybe it’s because they don’t respect Black people’s right to be human.
THIS is where schools need to start attacking and unpacking the issue. The problem isn’t the word, it’s the people who want to say the word when they know they shouldn’t. That should be the measuring stick schools use when choosing punishments for the offense. Blanket protocols and guidelines do not work to solve the real problem. Yes, the n-word should be banned from use by certain people; Yes, certain people should be punished for using the word; Those people, however, are not Black.