a piece I never imagined myself writing: A defense of a white man’s
use of the N-word.
I want to start
with a little back-story: I don’t use the N-word. Not ever. But
I used to, not so long ago. I used it in the context of talking
about racism in my psychology
of race and ethnicity course and only when quoting the written
words of scholars and prominent historical figures. I stopped (about
5 years ago) after several students told me that hearing the word,
even in this context, was painful for them. I stopped because it
was clear to me that the students were sincere and because I thought
I could teach the content just as well by saying "N-word".
I haven’t questioned
this choice since then, but ever since the
Huck Finn story broke, I’ve been doing just that. See, all of
the students who complained that hearing "nigger" in class
was painful were white and so it seems is the vast proportion of
people who a) kept Huckleberry Finn off the school curriculum
and b) like the idea of a "cleaner" version of Mark Twain’s
Now I don’t
want to over-stress this point. The feelings and needs of white
people matter too. It’s why I switched to using "N-word"
in my class. But the source of the discomfort is not irrelevant
either. For one, it suggests whose needs are being considered and
served by the given act. As far as I can tell, the new (edited)
edition of Huck Finn is primarily designed to serve the needs of
white conservatives. This too is okay, as long as we acknowledge
that this is what’s happening and not pretend that this is some
kind of racially progressive act that will improve the lives of
people of color.
It’s more complicated
than that, of course. In a recent opinion piece in the New York
Times, law professor Paul Butler (who is Black) wrote
through Huckleberry Finn in high school, with the white
kids going out of their way to say "Nigger Jim" and
the teacher’s tortured explanation that Twain’s "nigger"
didn’t really mean n-word, or meant it ironically, or historically,
or symbolically. Whatever."
No doubt Butler’s
experiences were not unusual for either his time or today, and I
wouldn’t wish them on anyone. Student racial insensitivity and teacher
discomfort with both our country’s racist past and contemporary
racial inequity are serious problems requiring thoughtful strategies.
I just happen to think that the strategy of removing racially objectionable
content cannot possibly be effective in anything other than eliminating
discomfort, and I am becoming increasingly convinced that, from
an educational standpoint, the elimination of discomfort is counterproductive.