Make us your home page

The Feed

What you're talking about today

N-Word Controversy Reveals Our Own Stilted Dialogue on Race



In an odd way, it is a sign of how far we have come: A white teacher in Louisville, Ky. has made national headlines following his use of the word nigger to refer to a black student.

Paul Dawson is appealing a 10-day suspension for admittedly telling the student "Well then, nigga, get away from my window." He also said the student used the term first, and that kids all over the school use the term in the same way others might say "dude" or "man."

But the student, 18-year-old Keysean Chavers, said he didn't use the word first; a claim backed by other students interviewed from the class. He has told journalists he felt Dawson's actions were unwarranted and offensive.

The main part of this controversy is easily understood. Dawson, a teacher with a history of using clumsily offensive teaching techniques to talk about social differences, made another boneheaded error here. Even when I was in high school, students used curse words all the time; that didn't mean it was appropriate for teachers to stoop to their language level.

But this case -- as so many of these incidents do -- reveals something deeper: our inability to talk about or reconcile our deep ambivalence about the n-word.

That ambivalence is rooted in black culture, where we use the word with each other, often in endearing terms, but recoil when someone outside the culture uses it.

Those who abhor the use of the word often seize on this contradiction. But there are plenty of women who call their friends bitches who wouldn't appreciate a man they didn't know employing similar languages some homosexual men also call each other the f-word in a way they would never tolerate from a straight male.

Complicating things is the way rap culture has taken the n-word to new levels of visibility. Suddenly, something that was an in-crowd behavior among black people has been plastered all over the globe, with adherents insisting there is some distinction between the classic "nigger" and rap-ified "nigga." I must confess, I've never believed such a thing -- the word is the word, and couching it in a slang version doesn't answer the core question.

Can a non-black person use the word in general company without being considered racist? And if not, isn't THAT racist?

In considering this, I am reminded of a great quote by -- of all people -- Dr. Phil: "Do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy?"

I do think the double standard on the n-word makes little sense. But black folks have been talking that way since before I was born --finding power in a word originally used to demean them. So I don't think that behavior will change soon.

We can, however, change how we talk about these incidents in the wider public space when they happen. Hysterical anger serves no one; if someone who has a long record of good works makes a slip of the tongue, there should be room to conclude that a good person did a bad thing, without imposing a capital punishment. We have seen locally how the debate over teachers with good records who mistakenly use awful racial language can be hijacked by emotion and the drive to punish.

Dawson is seriously flawed teacher who probably shouldn't be working in a classroom -- not because he is a racist, but because he doesn't have the good sense to deal with difference constructively in a learning environment.

Learning how to make that distinction when we talk about such incidents, might turn Dawson's awful mistake into a powerful teaching tool for us all.

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:35pm]


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours