The Promise and Peril of Ethnic Studies-Should a White Teacher Say the N-Word in Class?

“Home” is a powerful and poignant and painful poem.  It also contains the N-word.  A little bird told me that the poem was recently used in an OUSD ethnic studies class, and a White teacher read it aloud.  It is Oakland, and I love our youth.

A student objected, or at least questioned whether that was OK.

I question whether it is OK too.  And if you are teacher I think no matter how down you think you are, you have to be aware of the larger dynamics, and not how you feel, but how your students might feel.  If that empathy is even possible.

And as California potentially requires ethnic studies statewide, I worry about the unintended consequences.  Where folks with little training and maybe some “issues” on sensitivity or cultural competency take on these very challenging issues.  But first let’s look at the poem.

Here’s an excerpt from Home—it is a beautiful and powerful poem so please read the whole thing

no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough

go home blacks
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off

As a fly in the buttermilk kid, I would have shuddered to hear the teacher or another student read the N word.  We did read To Kill a Mockingbird and Tom Sawyer in class, but not aloud (thank the maker).  I had heard that word enough (and not in a literary way), and it was different to read it and understand it as part of literature.  But to hear my teacher or a student as part of the class, read it.  I might wonder, does it slip too easily and familiarly from their lips, isn’t that what this school kind of thinks of me anyways, I want to get out of this class/school.

The N word is an assault, it is a fighting word, and personally has been one.  And as the fly in the buttermilk kid, when you heard the N word, an iron curtain descends between you and everyone else in the room.  A lonely island that is better than a hostile shore.

I love the idea of every student taking ethnic studies, as California is proposing.  Well implemented, those are powerful experiences that help students situate themselves better and inspire them.  But as it is potentially rolled out statewide, by folks in some places who have no real experiences, and often harbor implicit or explicit bias, how will it be implemented.

If you are that fly in buttermilk kid, and things are done poorly. Will you be better off?

Interested in the opinions of folks on this one.


What do you think?

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