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The N-Word: Connected Through Historical Disconnect?

In the last twelve plus months, I have done dozens of public lectures on "Straight Talk About the N-word" on my university campus and at other colleges, high schools, churches and other organizations. I have spoken to segregated audiences, integrated audiences and intergenerational audiences. Over the year of having these conversations, one thing has become clear to me: Folks across the country want thoughtful, informed and critical conversation about the troublesome n-word that goes beyond the surface.

What is also clear to me after these many talks is that those who claim pronunciation, spelling and tonal variations of the n-word as an alleged act of “taking it back” and making it a “term of endearment” acknowledge a disconnect from the spiritually lethal label. More often than not, this younger generation of primarily black males uses this word’s variant “nigga/niggah” as a reclaiming of or legitimizing of their strong, black heteronormative masculinity. It’s primarily a “black male thing” to meet and greet with a casual “Whassup, my nigga?!”

When asked why this greeting is used so often instead of “brotha,” or “man,” or “homey”—which n-word users allege as its equivalent—they contend that they have “flipped the word” so that it doesn’t have that same historical sting associated with turbulent American race relations witnessed by their parents, grandparents and even teachers as manifested in the cruelties of American slavery, lynching and Jim Crow segregation.

While I do not approach my talks, publications or interviews with the expressed purpose of convincing folks not to use any form of the n-word, I do intentionally challenge the notion that how the word is pronounced, intoned or spelled somehow changes its meaning from derogatory to endearing. It does not. Indeed, the word “nigger” and all other variations in spelling appear in 19th-century American minstrel songs that are now popular Disney tunes—“Jimmy Crack Corn,” “Polly Wolly Doodle,” “Oh Susanna” and “Shew Fly.” It’s the second and third verses that commit the unpardonable sin of naming without apology.

Rapper Common, in his preface to the February 2014 ESPN “Special Report on the N-Word,” offers this historical connection and disconnect among those who do not know what needs to be known, understood and passed along:

The n-word is a euphemism to shield us from the shame of our past. … It is a polite code for the slur, but the slur itself—Nigger—that looks like a Sunday morning in Alabama when five black girls went into the bathroom of their church, and only one came out.

Once I demonstrate the n-word’s attachment to a past and present American history of violence, pain, misrepresentation, death and mockery associated with black and brown bodies, some lights of awareness flicker. When I ask them how they came to their decisions to use or not use it, they admit that they often don’t think about what they say, or insist, “It’s just a word!”

When we all cease to think about the words we use, we are not thinking critically or responsibly about how best to name our realities and our circumstances. Language is powerful. And as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. posits, “A word is … the skin of a living thought.”

Perhaps even more disturbing about the disconnect between using the n-word word and the peculiar American history that created it is that so many young folks—blacks, whites, Latino, Asian and others—really believe that racism no longer exists. This disconnect is especially disturbing to hear from a generation who has just lived through Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis and James Craig Anderson; the racist utterances of pop-culture icons Paula Deen, Michael Richards, John Mayer, Dog the Bounty Hunter and Dr. Laura Schlessinger; the controversies surrounding Stop and Frisk and Stand Your Ground. These are just a few of the countless cultural moments from the recent past that should remind us that we are not in a post-racial America—even if that were some desired social end.

A fitting, albeit unfortunate, illustration of this fact occurred when I was working with a local Arizona college team that invited me to do a Black History talk on the n-word, and the non-black graphic designer chose to name the saved marketing poster document “nigposter.jpg.” I and others were decidedly offended. Nowhere in any posters of my many talks locally and nationally have we spelled out the n-word. That adult staff member is now being held accountable.

Was this naming meant to be a “term of endearment,” a microaggression or an indication of sheer ignorance? As the one doing the naming, this designer is the one who holds the definition of this file name, not me. In the profound words of author Toni Morrison, “Definitions belong to the definers, not to the defined.” 

Lester is Foundation Professor of English and Director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University.

Using Orphan Train to Teach History and Tolerance

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline (2013) is a woven story of two protagonists, 17-year-old Molly who is a Penobscot Indian in foster care, and Vivian, a 91-year-old widow who was orphaned at age 9 and sent to the Midwest through the Children’s Aid Society via an “orphan train.” It’s also a story about the things we take with us, the things we leave behind and the ghosts that walk along beside us—the way the memories of people who’ve gone from our lives remain etched in who we are.

Young readers of Orphan Train learn to understand these unlikely friends through their stories. Vivian grew up Irish during a time period when Irish-Americans were despised. She survived negligence and abuse, lived through the Great Depression and every war since World War II. She’s seen people come and go, and learned early on to be wary of others—a part of her background that allows her to empathize with young Molly, whose experiences in the foster care system echo her own.

In the classroom, this book can be used to illustrate discrimination against the Irish in the U.S. in the early part of the 20th century, and to reveal the complexity of a period of midcentury history that is often overlooked. The book can also be used to teach about why understanding the past is relevant—and necessary—to understanding the present.

This engaging book can be used in several different ways in either language arts or social studies classrooms. Students could be asked to:

  • Analyze the dynamics of the relationship that develops between Molly and Vivian, and determine if this is a relationship of tolerance, a grandmother-granddaughter relationship, a mentorship or something else. Ask students to focus on the way understanding develops between Vivian and Molly and the role of story telling in their relationship.
  • Identify parallels between the story Vivian tells and other historical American events, such as the effects of the Great Depression or World War II on the lives of average Americans.
  • Research the ways in which the Irish, or other minorities, were or are discriminated against, and identify tropes in this discrimination. Ask students to consider ongoing discriminatory practices against American Indians or to consider the narratives about “welfare queens” that are commonly used to discredit poor people.
  • Conduct their own oral history projects similar to the one Molly is asked to do (for example, her assignment included the questions: What did you choose to bring with you to the next place? What did you leave behind? What insights did you gain about what’s important?).
  • Research the “orphan trains,” and use this research to build an understanding of how the definition of “childhood” has evolved through laws and regulations meant to protect children. Ask students to consider whether the concept of childhood applies equally to all children and to point to examples of instances where it does not.

Orphan Train is appropriate for high school students (although they should be warned it contains a sexual assault scene). It can be used to illuminate not only an underdocumented portion of history but also offer insight into Irish immigration in the early part of the 20th century. Additionally, it offers two strong female protagonists who forge their own ways despite the odds stacked against them. Orphan Train is ripe with opportunities for discussion, further research and developing the complex thinking necessary to draw historical parallels.

Clift works in an after-school program for youth and is the communications intern for the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

Intervene With Mean - Part Three

This post is part three of a three-part blog series that explores how to help students transform bullying behavior. The series mirrors the three levels of intervention outlined in Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). Level One applies to the 80 percent of students who are responsive when explicitly taught about acceptable behavior. Level Two addresses the 15 percent of students who need social skills training and tools to help them stop bullying. Level Three (the focus of this blog) addresses interventions for the 5 percent of students with persistent bullying problems who need intensive supports.

I hope that someday we will learn the terrible cost we all pay when we ignore or mismanage those people in society who most need our help.”

--The Honourable Judge Sandra Ann Hamilton, Provincial Court of Alberta, Calgary, Canada

Damon Smith was suspended more than 15 times for bullying. “You start thinking it’s cool,” he said. “You think you’re going to come back to school and catch up, but unless you’re a genius, you won’t. That made me want to mess up even more.”

This blog offers suggestions for how to help the 5 percent (PBIS Level Three) of youth who, like Damon, have serious, recurrent problems with bullying. Nearly 60 percent of boys classified as bullies in grades six through nine were convicted of at least one crime by the age of 24. Forty percent of them had three or more convictions by age 24. Clearly, these students need behavioral support—and these supports can positively affect both victims and perpetrators. By helping aggressive individuals change their patterns, we not only improve their lives—we prevent harm to others.

Transformation—Not for the Faint of Heart

Once a serious pattern of bullying has begun, the process of transformation is slow and requires a long-term commitment. Involve the family, school counselors and everyone who works with the student. Take time to review all documentation of the student’s bullying incidents, and get to know the student both by talking with and observing him. Are there patterns to the behavior? What antecedents and triggers do the student or staff notice before an incident occurs?

There is no one strategy that works for all students. Each strategy requires consistency and patience to find positive qualities in the student and to give the student a voice, helping her learn accountability without shaming her. But all effective strategies require planning and the belief that young people can change their behavior.

Effective Models for Change

Below are two different models designed to provide intensive and ongoing support for chronically aggressive students. Unlike many of the suggestions offered in Parts I and II, implementing these strategies requires training or even bringing in specialized staff members. It also requires significant time and coordination, often occurring in combination with weekly or biweekly meetings with a counselor and small-group, skill-building sessions coordinated with teachers.

1. Functional Behavioral Analysis (FBA) is a tool often used to gather relevant data about students who have chronic behavioral problems. The process includes observations, interviews and referral to school records to gather detailed data regarding notable triggers for student behavior, antecedents, reaction patterns and consequences for the behavior. The FBA also incorporates data on the student’s strengths, skills and past behaviors, and the effectiveness of previous interventions. This analysis is often done in collaboration with counselors, behaviorists and special education staff. The information is used to develop a Behavior Intervention Plan that is continually monitored and updated. This intensive model not only helps students stop unwanted behaviors but offers positive replacement behaviors.

The Functional Behavior Assessment Checklist is a template for organizing this complex data. It includes the specific information that needs to be gathered and an explanation of how to complete the plan. Because this process is complex, specialized training is necessary to implement it.

If your school doesn’t currently offer FBA as a means to intervene with youth who bully repeatedly, you can introduce the tool to your administration by sharing the complete process overview, as described by PBIS. The overview includes information about when and how to use an FBA.

2. Ross Greene’s book, Lost at School: Why Our Kids with Behavioral Challenges Are Falling Through the Cracks and How We Can Help Them, outlines a process of Collaborative Problem Solving, a model written for schools to use with the most difficult pupils. Collaborative Problem Solving for schools adapts a model that has been effectively used in inpatient psychiatric units, residence facilities and juvenile detention centers. Greene’s approach involves very intensive work by a trained teacher or counselor working with the student over time to identify what he calls “lagging skills” and finding solutions and alternate ways of behaving. Lagging skills refer to behavioral weakness in very specific situations, such as difficulty handling unpredictable events and adopting inflexible or distorted interpretations of an incident (“everyone is out to get me,” “you always blame me”). In this model, the student is taught to identify which of the lagging skills is most significant and provided intensive support to help him change it. Once success is achieved with one skill, the support team tackles another, relying on the belief that success breeds more success. Greene encourages educators to remember, “Kids do well if they can.” 

Working with some of our most challenging students is likely to cause intense frustration, even for highly trained staff members. But the most powerful thing we can do is to help those who have the hardest time, and bringing evidence-based models like Functional Behavioral Analysis and Collaborative Problem Solving to your school is an important first step. Offering these services lets students know we have not given up on them. Building meaningful relationships with these students—not only when an incident occurs, but before, after and in between incidents—helps us find their positive qualities. The message these interventions send is, “I believe in you and I know you can do better, and I will be there to stand with you as you work through this.”

Cohn-Vargas is director of Not in Our School and coauthor of Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn.

Let's Talk About "Bossy"

At TT we’re always keeping our ears to the ground for innovative programs designed to empower students, and we invite new ideas that drive conversation about gender equity. A few weeks ago I heard that Sheryl Sandberg—Facebook COO and author of the best-selling book Lean In—is partnering with the Girls Scouts and other organizations to publicize the recently launched Ban Bossy campaign. The mission? Stop people from using the word bossy when describing girls who lead.

The campaign’s website includes leadership tips for educators, parents and girls themselves, sharable images, and statistics and quotes surrounding girls’ leadership and how the word “bossy” can discourage it. “This [campaign] isn’t as simple as one word,” Sandberg has been quoted as saying, “and this shouldn’t be trivialized as a word. This is a word that is symbolic of systematic discouraging of girls to lead.”

As a woman who has sought out leadership roles throughout my life, this campaign intrigued me. But before I had time to wrap my mind around Ban Bossy, I began hearing that the campaign has been heavily criticized. Some look unfavorably at its endorsement by Beyoncé, questioning her as an appropriate representative for girls’ empowerment causes. But the primary criticisms come from those who believe banning a word is ineffective and an inadequate way to encourage leadership among girls. After all, lack of female leadership is about systems that hinder girls from attaining those roles. Can policing individual words change those systems?

Women’s media platform SheKnows is one voice asking this question. They’ve launched an alternative campaign called #BossyIs.

SheKnows editors say that the Ban Bossy campaign led them to debate “whether it’s effective to ban words or ‘own’ them.” This conversation led to the creation of a video in which eight- and nine-year-old girls discuss what the word bossy means to them, making it clear that they’re not fazed by the word.

When asked, “What if someone called you bossy?” one girl replies, “I am the awesomest. I’m not bossy, but I am the boss.” Another responds, “I’d say, ‘Well, that’s what you think. That’s not exactly what other people think or I think.’” Later, girls indicate that being bossy is not gender-specific and that they don’t believe boys are naturally “more powerful” than girls. Instead of avoiding the word bossy, these girls define for themselves what it means to be bossy—and what it means to be a leader.

But while the #BossyIs campaign has a great video (and an important message about the significance of having a dialogue with girls and boys about the differences between being bossy and leading), there doesn’t seem to be much more to it than that. And while I don’t love Ban Bossy’s emphasis on a single word, upon closer inspection it seems the campaign has more depth—and more than its alternative offers.

Ban Bossy’s parent’s guide does a nice job of asking all adult relatives to model behavior and language that supports assertive females and to maintain equal expectations for the girls and boys in their families. The girl’s guide is empowering and urges girls to own their actions, language and behavior, especially as they relate to speaking up for themselves and setting and achieving goals.

Most relevant to the TT community, the teacher’s guide offers advice for: being mindful of calling on boys more than girls, including positive role models in classroom library selections and identifying and preventing stereotype threat. It also provides handy classroom activities that involve whole-group discussions about goals and leadership, but it could do more to encourage direct dialogue about gender inequality, especially as it concerns beliefs about leadership and ambition. After all, the classroom is a great space for boys and girls to contemplate the dynamics surrounding this problem—and to determine how to change them.

As I was thinking through the pros and cons of Ban Bossy and #BossyIs, my dad sent my sister and me a few images taken from the latest issue of Ebony magazine. “Be thankful for what you have, but continue to seek your dreams,” said one. Another read, “Show up. And when you show up, be great.” It occurred to me that my father has always pushed me to aspire to greatness, even today still encouraging his adult daughters to lead and “be great.” That many girls don’t receive this kind of encouragement—or, worse, receive the message that ambition is unbecoming to females—should concern and motivate us as educators to talk about our spoken and unspoken messages regarding gender and leadership. The best way to tackle any systemic problem is through a combination of education and dialogue. If Ban Bossy and #BossyIs can get us talking, we’d rather keep the conversation going than choose sides.

Bell is an associate editor for Teaching Tolerance.

The Way I Speak About Youth Matters

When I speak about the youth I work with, I often struggle to find ways to talk about them that aren’t problematic. I find myself saying, “one of my more challenging youth,” or “my most headstrong youth” or “my youth who has impulse control issues” to describe exactly the same person. I try to remember that I could also describe him as “one of my brightest youth,” “my youth who steps outside to regain emotional control,” or “my youth who can build whole Lego cities.”

The phrasing I choose depends on what experience I’m trying to convey, and also how much tolerance I’m feeling for him that day—how much he has tried my patience and my ability to creatively solve problems within a system that wants to jail young black men who have already been kicked out of multiple schools.

When I go home and talk about my day, what I choose to say matters. It matters because it affects the way I’ll see this young man the next day and the way I’ll interact with other youth who will remind me of him in the future. It affects the way I represent “under-resourced” youth to others, and the expectations I convey to the larger community as a person who works with them.

I am especially aware of why the way I speak about youth matters when I hear people say, “Working with those youth must exhaust you!” and “How do you have the patience to work with those kids?” and “It’s a noble thing you’re doing.” This has happened more times than I can count.

I must remember that the same fears I have about negatively influencing others also apply to myself—that if I speak about the youth negatively, I might start to believe it. I might stop seeing their potential, stop viewing them as developing people who are allowed to make mistakes and find their way.

I know that it takes more than just sympathy (or empathy) to change the circumstances of under-resourced youth who live in a community ripped apart by street violence. Our staff works to empower these youth through leadership and discussion groups, by attending their sporting events and by refusing to do things for them that they can do for themselves. Speaking about them respectfully is one more way we can try to make their worlds less hostile and change the negative mythology surrounding their identities. One more way we can try to prevent them from being written off before they even get out of elementary school.

Clift works in an after-school program for youth and is the communications intern for the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

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