Exploring the Power of the N-word

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“Ms. Craven, we can put ‘nigga?’” 

I pause. Images of earnest sitting-in-a-circle chats in college flash through my brain:

  • A classmate from Kentucky explaining how she will never say that word, even in academic circles, because, being white, she will never be able to fully grasp its implications;
  • Another black classmate asserting that the word has been reclaimed, and that when black people use it, the poison of the original use gets diluted.

Meanwhile, my 13- and 14-year-olds look at me from a class that is mostly black. They generally have heard only that the n-word is either “cursing” or “ghetto.”

“I’m not sure how I feel about that,” I say honestly.  “What do you think?”

This week my kids are working on their understanding of parts of speech by making teenage dictionaries. Slang and text-speak are all allowed, although cursing and offensive language are not. Of course, I’m walking a dangerous line. If kids were good at knowing what words are appropriate for a school setting, we’d all have one less thing to teach. I, for one, would have far fewer detentions.

But I got into this project knowing these things would come up. I decided I was okay with that. My real, true, not-in-the-Louisiana-Comprehensive-Curriculum goal for this project was to involve my students in a discussion about the power of words. And here we were. Discussion begun.

“It’s just what we call each other,” said Devonta, “It’s like, ‘Wassup, son.’”

Jared replies, “Nah man, that’s what white people called us in the slave days.”

I asked them if the word meant the same thing for everybody—if it means the same thing from everybody. Would they would be okay if I used this word, for example.  (The response was mixed.) 

Quite understandably, kids who saw the word primarily as a relic of its “-er” origin decided they should not include the word. Those who saw it simply as a way friends greet each other concluded that it was okay. After all, as Sha’de put it, “This is supposed to be a dictionary of how we talk.” 

My kids don’t use four-letter words often in my classes anymore. A strict policy of an immediate detention has curbed the use of your standard Showtime expletives. But I still don’t feel satisfied. I’m not satisfied because I think what this has taught my kids is that swearing in Ms. Craven’s class will get you a detention. What I want to teach my kids is that swearing and using offensive language makes you appear less intelligent, less empathetic and even cruel.

This project is helping. These discussions are helping. My students are exploring the history and implications and power of specific words. They’re starting to understand that every time you use a word it essentially has two meanings: (1.) What you meant by it, and  (2.) What it means to the person who hears it.

I still have a ways to go. My classroom is far from some utopia of all-inclusive and tolerant language. But this is a start, this honest talk about words we know can offend. And I think it’s a pretty good one.

Craven is a middle school English teacher in Louisiana.

Comments

Good Morning!!! The shear

Submitted by Mary Ellen Griffith on 28 May 2011 - 8:01am.

Good Morning!!!

The shear commaraderie I felt several states East of Louisana is incredibly encouraging. So, thank you for your courage in addressing an issue that needs analyzation and discourse among middle school students, and thanks for reminding me I'm not the only one wishing for a few less detentions. We are surely on our way to brighter future.

Bravo, Mrs. Craven.

Kudos to you for developing a

Submitted by Wendy Blackwell on 31 May 2011 - 3:26pm.

Kudos to you for developing a new understanding, "every time you use a word it essentially has two meanings: (1.) What you meant by it, and (2.) What it means to the person who hears it." You are paving the road to a more sensitive world one child at a time. I am grateful for your efforts.

I applaud your creativity in

Submitted by Lynn on 31 May 2011 - 3:33pm.

I applaud your creativity in engaging students in such an academic, historical and cultural lesson. Being another educator from Louisiana, I am proud to see that you have opened this discussion to the youthful minds of our adolescents. I challenge you take it a step further and guide them through a structured way of debating the issue. If you feel comfortable, introduce them to published prose, poetry, rap, video and other sources that might support their stance on the issue. They always think they are right so make them prove it intellectually.

Good job.

Great feedback for the

Submitted by Denise on 31 May 2011 - 7:50pm.

Great feedback for the beginning discussion. Adding the other media forms also broadens the discussion to what and how language is used to diminish or celebrate humanity. A closer look at popular media also brings students closer to what may influence their language use and how the media is used to reinforce or challenge stereotypes. "make them prove it intellectually" brilliant!

Job well done Ms. Craven. You

Submitted by Sandi Beamon on 31 May 2011 - 4:01pm.

Job well done Ms. Craven. You are point on in teaching the power of words. Perhpas more of your colleagues will embrace this attitude. As a mature educator working with youth for over 30 years I see all too often teachers in the classroom that could care less to challenge this subject, but you are doing a great job at letting them begin to talk about it and have you as the facilitator....afterall isn't that what a real teacher is supposed to do...lead and facilitate? Thank u for sharing your greatness in the classroom!

I appreciate the courage to

Submitted by Dave Moss on 1 June 2011 - 7:26am.

I appreciate the courage to approach this topic with your students. I use many of the articles from this site for Socratic seminars and Philosophical Chairs with my students. It would be great to use the topic on the 'N' word as well.

My dear Ms. Craven - You are

Submitted by Dani Cross on 31 May 2011 - 6:30pm.

My dear Ms. Craven - You are doing exactly what we all should be doing in our classrooms! I am so proud of you! It's that difficult discussion that so many dodge, or just hide from completely! It must take place and it is always going to be challenging. However, I am hard pressed to think of anything in the classroom, that ISN'T.

Keep the dialog going, please! ~even if it's "not-in-the-Louisiana-Comprehensive-Curriculum!"

Peace to you and your students, Ms. Craven..

Ms. Cross
Teacher of: them all

I recently had a student

Submitted by LDNolasco on 31 May 2011 - 7:26pm.

I recently had a student write a paper for his English class on three definitions of the "n-word." I worked in the writing center and he came for tutoring. The male student and female professor were both black, and this choice of topic was approved because it was exploring the language. He needed an attention-getter, and after some brainstorming, he began with a short anecdote: -"'What's up, nigga?' - I turned around and, to my surprise, I saw two white teens greeting one another." This led him into his definitions: it is a word that is a relic of the slave days; it is an incendiary word that incites violence; and finally, he mentioned the popular use as a greeting and in songs. His thesis statement was embedded in the examples which proved how language changes.

After several revisions, the paper earned an "A" and the instructor wanted to use it as a model for the assignment. The student's second paragraph explained in detail how someone had yelled out the word when he and his brother were walking down the street and what happened during the fight that followed. This was an extension of the first paragraph: the white storekeeper used the word on the student when he was eight years old because he was taking too long to make up his mind. When he asked his aunt, "What's a n-" she marched him right back to the store and demanded an apology from the storekeeper.

The last paragraph showed how rap artists like Nas use the plural of the word (without the -er ending) in songs like "One Mic." Perhaps in the student's mind, the white teens were carrying things too far by using the word on themselves. Another student in a classroom setting once brought up the theory of how, when a word is used too many times, it loses its potency. This might not be the case with racially-charged language.

Wow. What an empowering

Submitted by CCraven on 4 June 2011 - 7:09am.

Wow. What an empowering thing for a student to write about! (I'm assuming this is a high-school student) It seems that many kids go through their whole scholastic career without deliberately diving in to subjects like these. This word in particular is such an example of the intersection among history, social relationships, and identity (as your student's paper explores). What a great experience for him. And one surely to affect his future conversations with folks who use that word.
Thank you for not shying away from that subject because it is a tricky one.

I applaud you and your

Submitted by Marc Mostransky on 31 May 2011 - 9:22pm.

I applaud you and your openness with your students. I love your point at the end that you want to move past the relationship between swearing and detention and into the intrinsic knowledge and empathy of how this makes them appear to others.

I believe Tribe Called Quest came out with a song in the 80s or 90s that emphasized the embracing of the N word that was used as a power word to keep Blacks down but the only way to gain power back is to morph the word to your liking.

Wish I knew the title of the song. Keep teaching to change the world for a better place!

Mrs. Craven, if you could see

Submitted by Beverly McRae on 31 May 2011 - 9:38pm.

Mrs. Craven, if you could see me now, I am offering you a standing ovation and roaring applause for your courage to push-the-envelope. This subject comes up often in my 7th grade health class when we discuss violence and the various issues that cause conflict amongst teens.

One year we had an issue with the boys 7th & 8th grade football team. A popular, well-liked white athlete used the N-word towards a black teammate just as any other black friend would do in a friendly "Wassup" manner. Unfortunately his use of the N-word while meant with the best of intentions, was not well received. The white athlete was jumped and a fight insued in the locker room. The whole football team was suspended for a week and had to forfeit an important game. I jumped a the chance of this 'teachable moment'. My students explained calmly and clearly that the N-word can only be used by a person of color. I went a step further...we had two multi-racial students in one class...one was half mexican/half black and the other was black/white/hispanic. I asked one partuclarly vocal boy if both of these kids could use the N-word? He hesitated at first (looking back-and-forth and both kids) then declared that one boy was too light in skin color and therefor could not use the word. I needed to clarify his opinion, so I said, "In other words, it also depends on what shade of color you are to use the word?" He declared 'Yes!" At this point I must have had a puzzled look of loss on my face. Finally one student said "Mrs. McRae, we can't change the world and how everyone uses the N-word even though it means different things to different people." I agreed, but reminded him that he can choose to not use the word, and also not to answer to it. He was given a first name at birth by his parents, and it is surely not 'Nigga.

Thank you for taking that

Submitted by CCraven on 4 June 2011 - 7:22am.

Thank you for taking that opportunity! It truly makes me feel like I'm part of a positive community when I hear about teachers all over the country having the courage to calmly talk about issues like this.

I'm glad you had this

Submitted by Ms.Chy on 6 June 2011 - 10:45am.

I'm glad you had this conversation with your class.
When the kids said it depended on the shade of of color you are to use the word, that would have been the perfect opportunity to remind them that THAT is how the word was intended to be used in the first place! And you could have also noted that even after slavery, if a black person had light-skin, they would use the n-word in a derrogatory manner toward dark-skin black people. Light skin black people sometimes could pass for "white" and would treat their own kind like dirt, just as white people had done to their families for years.
And it would be great to remind these kids that putting an "a" at the end was not intended to make it a friendly word. People pronounced it with an "a" at the end because it was the slang version... not a term of endearment. Then you could have told them that slave owners and traders would be laughing in their graves today if they knew they had tricked these "dumb" black people into believing they could "reclaim" the word. Using that word does nothing but prove what those people believed back then: That blacks can't think for themselves and they are dumb enough to use a derrogatory word to show endearment.
Our black ancestors would be turning in their graves if they knew all they had fought for and suffered through was reduced to an argument about whether or not people should use the n-word.
Oh, I could go on and on! But the important thing is that you made them think about it. Good job!

I think the meanings of words

Submitted by James Nimmo on 31 May 2011 - 9:42pm.

I think the meanings of words should be confronted and not hidden in closets to protect those who aren't strong enough to deal with those meanings Yes, those meanings can be ugly and hurtful, but the definitions have to be faced and we have to face the users of those words as well. We must understand why they use words in attempts to dominate the public space and override the civil equality of those who are the target of those offensive words.

To shirk the meanings and histories of words is to deny history.

I think you're completely

Submitted by CCraven on 4 June 2011 - 7:15am.

I think you're completely right. This reminds me of George Orwell's "doublespeak." Where words were gradually removed from usage. He shows how scary it would be to have your available repertoire of words limited by forces in charge.

You bring up an interesting idea- that perhaps refusing to acknowledge that word is refusing to acknowledge that there once was a time when many white people used it in a derogatory way specifically to oppress others. Maybe one reason it's easier to simply say, "I don't use that word and I don't think anyone should," is that it distances us from our culture's shameful past.

Great reflection! Thanks for

Submitted by Melanie on 31 May 2011 - 10:11pm.

Great reflection! Thanks for sharing. I'd add that 'swearing' and 'offensive' language are not always the same thing, perhaps there is a time and a place to swear, and sometimes eliminating the words doesn't get rid of the offensive beliefs but drives them underground... but that's probably for after 'Swearing 101' is mastered. : )

Ms.Craven, Good for you for

Submitted by Debbie on 1 June 2011 - 8:50am.

Ms.Craven, Good for you for having the courage to have this conversation! When this came up in my class, I suggested that this word should not be used at all! My reasons are many, but the main reason is that students of other races may think it's okay to address African Americans students using this word. Its use just promotes confusion, because some may use it and others may not! It seems to me that the use of this deragatory word is a slap in the face of the strife of African Americans in this country. Ms. Craven, I do not allow the use of the word in my classroom or my home. It doesn't matter to me who uses it, because it is still used to put someone down.

That's a good clarification

Submitted by CCraven on 4 June 2011 - 7:20am.

That's a good clarification to make. I also dissuade my students from using that word to address each other, for precisely the reasons you outlined. Likewise, I won't allow my son to use the word as he grows up. However, I've never been comfortable with the idea of equating this word with four-letter words, because there is so much cultural relevance wrapped up in it.
The reason I allowed them to decide for themselves whether to include it or not was one, to empower them to act as documentarians of their own language/the language of their neighborhood, and two, to let them grapple with this question themselves, to make them think critically about the words they hear and use.

I have to constantly challenge myself not to simply espouse the conclusions that I have come to (over years of experience and study), and instead encourage my students to come to their own. I think that's one of the hardest parts about teaching.

I can understand why this

Submitted by Kelly on 7 August 2011 - 12:28pm.

I can understand why this would be one of the "hardest parts about teaching", but I admire you for it. Allowing your students to come to their own conclusions based on some good teacher(experience)-led discussions is showing respect for them as students. Hopefully, you won't be the last educator to allow difficult topics that challenge them to think for themselves about relevant issues in their lives. Great teaching!

I love what you did and how

Submitted by Christy on 2 June 2011 - 8:45am.

I love what you did and how you engaged your kids. This debate seems to be ongoing - in the classroom, in group settings and even on Oprah. Thank you for sharing this:

I asked them if the word meant the same thing for everybody—if it means the same thing FROM everybody. What an important distiction.

Keep up the good work!

I applaud your effort

Submitted by Sally Bromley on 2 June 2011 - 9:13am.

I applaud your effort Mrs.Craven. It is nice that you consider the personal thoughts and opinions of your students. You have to stay open-minded but grounded when dealing with kids of all ages. However I feel this word is inappropiate for any race to depict another. Many years ago blacks fought for their freedom and having this kind of terminology not directed toward them and their loved ones. All kids presently today need to be taught black history and what defines another persons race and culture. When I was growing up in the Northern East Coast black hisory was not taught, black history month was not even recognized unless you went to the public library. If black kids are not taught the truth about their history and what your ancesters have fought for and stood against, you can not expect them to began to really understand the visual importance of this offensive word.. It is not right to greet your friends and family with this term at all. Would it be appropiate to greet your friends and family by this term and then get out into the world have a professional job and your boss and colleagues greet you or call you this word to your face? Too many black s feel it is okay if they greet each other with this term but it is not for someone of the opposite race to confront them with this term. To me it is never okay. My family is multiracial and I will fight you if you reference this ugly word to me or my family word. To me personally it makes me believe that you are ignorant and have not been taught the truth about this word. Futhermore why do you go to school to become educated and still speak like your ignorant. There are so many people that have been killed for calling someone this word. Many years ago I had a brother who was called this word. He and some of his friends were walking home from school minding their own business. Three caucasian males hollered this despicable word at them because they were of color. However my brother is multiracial and the two other guys he was with were Puerto-Rican and Mexican. The guys in the van pulled over and got out and questioned them and asked them why are you "Niggers" in their neighborhood. My brother and his friends would not answer them they continued to walk pass the three white males, the white male got right in my brothers face and singed him out and called him the N-word one more time. My brother lost control and broke the guys ribs, fractured his collar bone and broke the guys first three fingers and knocked out six of the guys teeth. This is how deadly the N-word can be. It should not be allowed to be used at all. We were not given names to call each other or use such derogatory terms when referring to each other. The truth of this term and the utilization of this term needs to be prohibited.

Impressive lesson Ms. Craven,

Submitted by Ms. OSullivan on 2 June 2011 - 11:15am.

Impressive lesson Ms. Craven, your creativity and courage is a great example of what educators need to do more of so we understand students and so they feel understood.
I believe your students are learning and will understand that using offensive language outside of your classroom is not appropriate.
Keep up the awesome work!

I find the use of the nigga

Submitted by Sandra Duckworth on 3 June 2011 - 10:35am.

I find the use of the nigga inappropriate because it represents thoughts of the early 60's. I was taught by my parents to use proper english and that the use of that word was "cussing". In privacy of your home or neighorhood others felt it was acceptable, but never in public schools, public areas such as the mall, movies, and never in front of older adults because it shows a lack of respect for self. I tried talking to a group of black students about the use of the word but they insisted it's the way white people pronounce it and the way black's say it. I believe it's a sign of ignorance and should never be used at all. My great grandfather was a house slave and I don't believe we fought for the right to call each other that word.

That's exactly the question,

Submitted by CCraven on 4 June 2011 - 7:29am.

That's exactly the question, isn't it? To some, it does represent the early sixties and the struggle for civil rights, for some it goes much further back and represents slavery in all its ugliness, but it would be false to deny that for some, it represents camaraderie with fellow members of a group. And particularly for me, as an outsider to that group, I will offer my opinions, based on what I've read and seen and feel myself, but I will not impose my beliefs as a rule. I really do want my students to hear all the arguments, digest them in their own personal context and the present-tense, and make their decisions on their own.

I am impressed how it has

Submitted by Ellen Simone on 7 June 2011 - 10:15am.

I am impressed how it has become; the 'n' word. I tell my students I will be happy the day people refer to the 'g' word or the 'r' word and stop using the term gay or retard in a derogatory way. I have seen the 'n' word transform in my lifetime to a word most people refuse to vocalize. I can see the logic of the African-American people who use the term, nigga, as a way of removing the power of the word, but I fear the reverse happening of people thinking it is o.k. to use it. If a single word can make someone feel bad or uncomfortable, then it should be removed from everyday use.

I found the conversation very

Submitted by Cornelius Spikes on 14 June 2011 - 5:39pm.

I found the conversation very interesting. It seems that such communications are lacking in schools across the country; the question then becomes why? The historical use of the word represented a negative connotation to the individuals to whome it was directed. Such individuals were deemed as inferior and powerless. However, some argue that the use of the "N" word within the Afican-American community today is a way of taking away it's power. But, how could that be when many children in the African-American comunity are unaware of it's origin. To some, history today merely serves to gloss over racisim and slavery as if it never happened. For example, there was a twenty-one year old college student in my class who said "i never new of slavery until I started colleg".

I am a middle school teacher

Submitted by Corey Washington on 14 June 2011 - 8:21pm.

I am a middle school teacher in Augusta, GA. I have designed a two part series on racial issues for kids. You can check it out at www.plaintalk2010.com and www.plaintalk2011.com. These books would go well with your next discussion. The kids around Augusta, GA have responded well to these books.

Kudos on your class activity.

Submitted by Donald Parker on 24 September 2011 - 8:24am.

Kudos on your class activity. Great lesson. Had the discussion, but never used the idea of a "slang" dictionary. As regards to the word "nigga", don't like it, won't use it, and encourage students not to use it. One thing in regards to your language - swearing is an Anglo-American expression. Doesn't mean the same to African-Americans. "Cussing" is considered an impolite use of vulgar language used to express anger, disgust, etc. Swearing to African-Americans is closer to the Bible's meaning, "thou shalt not use the Lord Thou God's Name in vain." This distinction is still very clear in the South even though large numbers of youths no longer attend church or Sunday School. Have a great year teaching in Louisiana.

The way in which the teacher

Submitted by Sha-nayyy-nayyy on 3 November 2011 - 11:57pm.

The way in which the teacher approached the topic of “the n-word” was very well played out. In my opinion, it is a word with many meanings, and those meanings are determined by who is using the word. Some people, like stated in the article, use that word as an everyday greeting. Others may here that word and instantly be shocked. It is society that has changed words and their meanings. To me, it doesn’t make sense how come people can use that word all the time, but once someone else uses it, they take offense. It is one word that will have conflicting meanings until probably forever.

Hi! In the light of Paula

Submitted by Mommy of 6 & 4 on 3 July 2013 - 11:26pm.

Hi! In the light of Paula Deen's scandal of using the n-word I search the net to find how to teach my 6 & 4 this is not acceptable. I don't want them to "hear and learn" it from some kids. But I don't know how to approach it. They know stupid is not a nice word and not acceptable and other more words. Thank you.