The "N" Word How do you deal with students use of the "n" word in the classroom.  I have tried so many ways in which to encourage the use of other words but it still is the main way in which my...

The "N" Word

How do you deal with students use of the "n" word in the classroom.  I have tried so many ways in which to encourage the use of other words but it still is the main way in which my students interact with each other.  This has now spread to my hispanic students as well as my black students.  I was lovingly referred to as "my n****" by one of my students and while I appreciate his affection I need them to know it makes me very uncomfortable.  Growing up in the rural south I know the demoralizing meaning of the word as used by many of my friends and older adults.  I have always hated the word and want my students to understand this.  Does anyone know how I can do this effectively?  Am I unfairly getting this out of context and meaning? 

Asked on by krcavnar

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booboosmoosh's profile pic

booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

This is a tough question. The phrase is so deeply embedded in some parts of American culture that it would be impossible to remove it. My experience has been that some black people use the word and others are offended. Without the experience of growing up and dealing with society as a black person, I don't feel it my place to tell black people what they can say. In the classroom, I do not read it with literature—for example, in "A Rose for Emily," which I usually read around Halloween (because it is so creepy), I substitute another word. I do the same with To Kill a Mockingbird.

My students know that I don't like the word, and I don't want it used in class in the event that it makes anyone else uncomfortable. There is a time and place for everything, but my school environment is probably different from other schools where it is used more often.

Once I develop a good rapport with my students, no one that might be inclined to use this term usually does, and I believe they acknowledge my wish because I try to also show respect for them in things that matter to them. There are other disparaging words used in the halls, or that slip into discussion before class begins, and I expect the same self-control that I do for the N*** word. This is the best way to deal with term that I consider prejudicial. If other students do not, I still ask them to avoid it if only for my sake; in this way, if someone else does find it offensive, he/she doesn't need to stand up and say so. It can be a tough call.

docent5353's profile pic

docent5353 | College Teacher | (Level 1) Adjunct Educator

Posted on

In the South, one thing that, unfortunately, fosters the continuation of the use of this word is the frequent use of it by blacks themselves who use it in a joking way or even as insult to one another (as in "What's wrong wif' jou, n---?") So, in order to get people to stop saying it, the people who have been the victims of the word really need to discontinue its use themselves.

When teachers scold students for calling each other this, the students may reply that the word is used as slang and they are just kidding with each other.  "It's different if another person [meaning of another race] says it," they claim. Perhaps, then, this is the problem.  The n--word must be eliminated as a catch-word in the popular culture of the street, rap, hip-hop, cinema, etc.  Hearing this word simply reinforces it in the minds of all races.

I studied at Harvard, Stanford and I attended many other schools and colleges around the world.  I matriculated from a small black college in Austin, Texas.  The college is a historically black college that is one of the oldest institutions of learning in America.  As part of our undergraduate training at Huston-Tillotson University, we were REQUIRED to immerse ourselves in the learning and recognition of our ancestors.  I took one class in African History and I knew I would no longer be a French or Greek scholar for one second longer.

Growing up in Honors classes; I had never heard anything great or outstanding about my race.  With my multi-cultural looks and excellent pronunciation and intonation-no one made fun of my "differentness".  I attended the huge school, UT, Austin and found that most of the blacks there had parents that were professionals-so the n-term was known but seldom used.  The difference in both of these black populations is a true knowledge of self.  The poorer and lower class/ first generation black students at HT needed to love their black skin. 

docent5353's profile pic

docent5353 | College Teacher | (Level 1) Adjunct Educator

Posted on

The "N" Word

How do you deal with students use of the "n" word in the classroom.  I have tried so many ways in which to encourage the use of other words but it still is the main way in which my students interact with each other.  This has now spread to my hispanic students as well as my black students.  I was lovingly referred to as "my n****" by one of my students and while I appreciate his affection I need them to know it makes me very uncomfortable.  Growing up in the rural south I know the demoralizing meaning of the word as used by many of my friends and older adults.  I have always hated the word and want my students to understand this.  Does anyone know how I can do this effectively?  Am I unfairly getting this out of context and meaning? 

I teach African-American History and I am an African-American.  In my high school and college classes, I spend time and money on demonstrating to my students their amazing history.

I have visited Africa, Israel and other places where there is a large black population.  I studied the languages of some of the people of Africa ( Swahili and Amharic) and I pepper in those words and phrases when I start my classes.  My room has artifacts and posters of all colors of people from around the world.  I constantly explain the beauty and the gifts that each race brought to humanity.

Starting at the n-word is the wrong place to start.  Start at the point of you are a descendant of one of an amazing group and here is your history.  By holding up the truth mirror; they will slowly appreciate their unique value. 

docent5353's profile pic

docent5353 | College Teacher | (Level 1) Adjunct Educator

Posted on

I teach in an urban, predominantly Black high school. I have been dealing with this situation for years. I have tried doing lessons on derogatory words used for different ethnic groups and the weird thing was, my students weren't familiar with most of them. However, the use of the n-word amongst the students is a constant thing and they have become so desensitized at this point, that they don't even realize they are saying it. I still feel it is my duty to point out that the way you talk in school or at work should be different than the way you talk with peers outside of these establishments. I constantly have to remind them to watch how they speak. That is about all I can do though. If I gave every kid detention for language, I would be talking to myself alone in my room.

I teach African- American History both in secondary school and in college.The conversation of race, ethnicity, culture, language, power as well as self-esteem needs to start at the front end of the conversation.  Most people of color or people with a history of extreme genocide and oppression, (The Jewish Holocaust Survivors) do not want to begin to hear about their tragic cultural history commencing at the start of their abuse at the hands of Hitler.  A more appropriate and richer depiction of their brilliant cultural and intellectual gifts to the world would be a more "culturally friendly" place to start. 

After establishing the many great concepts, scientists, historians, poets, musicians, scholars, businessmen and women etc. that are of Jewish descent, then you may begin to discuss the despicable events that transpired before, during and after World War II. I would suggest you inundate them with the beauty of their past and vast culture of wealth and power.  Gather posters from a teaching store around ($1.99 and above) and plaster your class with proud, colorful African Kings and Queens from East and West Africa.  Slowly spice your presentations with a 5 second blurb about outstanding African-Americans in history, law, literature, civil rights from today to antiquity.   

trophyhunter1's profile pic

trophyhunter1 | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

I teach in an urban, predominantly Black high school. I have been dealing with this situation for years. I have tried doing lessons on derogatory words used for different ethnic groups and the weird thing was, my students weren't familiar with most of them. However, the use of the n-word amongst the students is a constant thing and they have become so desensitized at this point, that they don't even realize they are saying it. I still feel it is my duty to point out that the way you talk in school or at work should be different than the way you talk with peers outside of these establishments. I constantly have to remind them to watch how they speak. That is about all I can do though. If I gave every kid detention for language, I would be talking to myself alone in my room.

kiwi's profile pic

kiwi | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator

Posted on

I have tried post #7 's approach with educating into the background of the words and why they may be offensive to some.

 We discuss that Anglo Saxon words were retained purely to be offensive to the French invaders of the UK. Some of my mature students had fun replacing their usual bad language with less contentious terms. It fostered a discussion on widening our vocabulary too. Some liked to replace the F word with 'fy fan' (pronounced fee farn) which is Swedish for the devil and used as a mild curse.

 Removing swearing from common useage is kind of a weaning off process I think. Regular users of profanity are like addicts to anything else; they need time, education, diversion and sometimes placebos to get them through.

bullgatortail's profile pic

bullgatortail | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

Yep, living in the South will definitely expose you to the "N" word from a wide variety of people. I mostly hear it from other African-American kids talking to black friends, and they don't seem to realize that school is not the proper setting for it. Although I mostly overhear it outside class time, sometimes it pops up in class, too. I had to send a white kid to the office for using it in a near-physical confrontation last year. Probably wouldn't have happened if two African-American kids were involved. It is amazing the differing emotions the word offers. You mention that you appreciated their reference to you since it was done in a loving manner, but I'm sure if you were called that under different circumstances, you might not have reacted so positively. It's one of those words (like "Heil, Hitler" or the "F" word) that just needs to go away but never will.

mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

In the South, one thing that, unfortunately, fosters the continuation of the use of this word is the frequent use of it by blacks themselves who use it in a joking way or even as insult to one another (as in "What's wrong wif' jou, n---?") So, in order to get people to stop saying it, the people who have been the victims of the word really need to discontinue its use themselves.

When teachers scold students for calling each other this, the students may reply that the word is used as slang and they are just kidding with each other.  "It's different if another person [meaning of another race] says it," they claim. Perhaps, then, this is the problem.  The n--word must be eliminated as a catch-word in the popular culture of the street, rap, hip-hop, cinema, etc.  Hearing this word simply reinforces it in the minds of all races.

accessteacher's profile pic

accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

I wonder whether it is worth trying to explore the context and background of the word and how it has changed (or not) over time to become something different. Reading accounts of people who were dehumanised by the use of this word might actually help your students to be aware of the associations that the word has for many still.

brettd's profile pic

brettd | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

The N-word itself is pretty rare in my bi-cultural, Latino/Caucasian community, but there are certainly equivalents in between those two cultures too.  I find the best way is to teach all of my students the power of words, to create a classroom environment where discussions about racism are possible, and to model the way in which I respect all students.  They are kids, and someone or something taught them to use such words in ways that are at least careless and at worst, hurtful.  They can be taught otherwise too.

lmetcalf's profile pic

lmetcalf | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

Posted on

I agree with the above posts -- you cannot let this go unaddressed.  Language is a powerful thing, and while these students may see no harm, the mere fact that you are uncomfortable, and RIGHTLY so, means that it is causing harm.  Depending on the students, perhaps you could bring in some of the recent news stories about the publishing company that is going to take the "n" word out of its editions of Huckleberry Finn.  While you may not agree with that choice, you could talk about the fact that this is an issue in the first place.  If there is enough support in certain sectors of society to change the language of an iconic American novel like Huck  then they should think about they way they speak in polite company. 

wannam's profile pic

wannam | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator

Posted on

No, I don't think you're blowing this out of proportion. I had a real problem with my students doing this as well. As far as how to deal with it, I'd say that depends on your students. I had some classes that were more mature and we would discuss the issue. As an English teacher, I would often explain how the word started and use that to teach connotation/denotion at the same time. For my less mature groups, I just had to continually reiterate that in my classroom that word was not aloud. I had a rather strick policy on language in my room. I tried to teach the kids that there is a time and place for everything. In the classroom (or in the professional setting they will encounter when they leave my classroom), certain language is not tolerated; I didn't let the kids curse or use the n word. As noted in post 2, the n word isn't the only troublesome word. Instead of "sucks," my students said everything was "gay". We talked about how that word might be offensive and they kids had to come to an understanding that certain words are just not acceptable.
lrwilliams's profile pic

lrwilliams | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator

Posted on

I think you will just have to continue to address it as inappropriate every time it is used. You have to make them understand the expectation in your classroom and then start relating it to the rest of the world. As mentioned above they would not go to a job interview and use that word. Try relating it to other things in their lives.

auntlori's profile pic

Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

Wow. After almost 30 years of teaching in the relatively rural Midwest, I have virtually no personal experience with your dilemma; however, I can certainly empathize with your mixed feelings about this word and its connotations. My suggestion may be no help at all, but it seems to me one way to kind of diffuse the word altogether might be to treat it as simple slang. I've always asked and expected students to avoid the lazy language of slang. For example, there was a time when everything "sucked"--breaking a fingernail and failing a test and having an uncle die. Same word for all events. They were welcome to express themselves about any of these things, but they couldn't hide behind that vague and rather crude word. the two words are not at all on the same level, I know, but perhaps a prohibition on slang would give you an opportunity to address the need for more appropriate and suitable ways of addressing or describing others, especially as they leave high school. My guess is that most of them understand they could not speak in such a way in, say, a job interview; so, why not practice so they're ready when the need arises. I appreciate your willingness to tackle such a sensitive and racially charged issue.

litteacher8's profile pic

litteacher8 | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

Where I teach now, this is not an issue except in literature we study. But when I taught in urban schools, I often faced this dilemma. You can ignore it and not make a big deal out of it, or you can make a lesson out of it. I think that the history of the word and its current usage is a good place to start. It could be part of a larger unit on the power of words. Debating the issue would also be a good way to address it head on. Have a formal debate on it.

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