The n-word is unique in the English language. On one hand, it is the ultimate insult- a word that has tormented generations of African Americans. Yet over time, it has become a popular term of endearment by the descendents of the very people who once had to endure it. Among many young people today—black and white—the n-word can mean friend.
Neal A. Lester, dean of humanities and former chair of the English department at Arizona State University, recognized that the complexity of the n-word’s evolution demanded greater critical attention. In 2008, he taught the first ever college-level class designed to explore the word “nigger” (which will be referred to as the n-word). Lester said the subject fascinated him precisely because he didn’t understand its layered complexities.
“When I first started talking about the idea of the course,” Lester recalled, “I had people saying, ‘This is really exciting, but what would you do in the course? How can you have a course about a word?’ It was clear to me that the course, both in its conception and in how it unfolded, was much bigger than a word. It starts with a word, but it becomes about other ideas and realities that go beyond words.”
Lester took a few minutes to talk to Teaching Tolerance managing editor Sean Price about what he’s learned and how that can help other educators.
How did the n-word become such a scathing insult?
We know, at least in the history I’ve looked at, that the word started off as just a descriptor, “negro,” with no value attached to it. … We know that as early as the 17th century, “negro” evolved to “nigger” as intentionally derogatory, and it has never been able to shed that baggage since then—even when black people talk about appropriating and reappropriating it. The poison is still there. The word is inextricably linked with violence and brutality on black psyches and derogatory aspersions cast on black bodies. No degree of appropriating can rid it of that bloodsoaked history.
Why is the n-word so popular with many young black kids today?
If you could keep the word within the context of the intimate environment [among friends], then I can see that you could potentially own the word and control it. But you can’t because the word takes on a life of its own if it’s not in that environment. People like to talk about it in terms of public and private uses. Jesse Jackson was one of those who called for a moratorium on using the word, but then was caught using the word with a live mic during a “private” whispered conversation.
There’s no way to know all of its nuances because it’s such a complicated word, a word with a particular racialized American history. But one way of getting at it is to have some critical and historical discussions about it and not pretend that it doesn’t exist. We also cannot pretend that there is not a double standard—that blacks can say it without much social consequence but whites cannot. There’s a double standard about a lot of stuff. There are certain things that I would never say. In my relationship with my wife, who is not African American, I would never imagine her using that word, no matter how angry she was with me. …
That’s what I’m asking people to do—to self-reflect critically on how we all use language and the extent to which language is a reflection of our innermost thoughts. Most people don’t bother to go to that level of self-reflection and self-critique. Ultimately, that’s what the class is about. It’s about selfeducation and self-critique, not trying to control others by telling them what to say or how to think, but rather trying to figure out how we think and how the words we use mirror our thinking. The class sessions often become confessionals because white students often admit details about their intimate social circles I would never be privy to otherwise.
What types of things do they confess?
In their circles of white friends, some are so comfortable with the n-word because they’ve grown up on and been nourished by hip-hop. Much of the commercial hip-hop culture by black males uses the n-word as a staple. White youths, statistically the largest consumers of hip-hop, then feel that they can use the word among themselves with black and white peers. … But then I hear in that same discussion that many of the black youths are indeed offended by [whites using the n-word]. And if blacks and whites are together and a white person uses the word, many blacks are ready to fight. So this word comes laden with these complicated and contradictory emotional responses to it. It’s very confusing to folks on the “outside,” particularly when nobody has really talked about the history of the word in terms of American history, language, performance and identity.
Most public school teachers are white women. How might they hold class discussions about this word? Do you think it would help them to lay some groundwork?
You might want to get somebody from the outside who is African American to be a central part of any discussion— an administrator, a parent, a pastor or other professional with some credibility and authority. Every white teacher out there needs to know some black people. Black people can rarely say they know no white people; it’s a near social impossibility. The NAACP would be a good place to start, but I do not suggest running to the NAACP as a single “authority.” Surely there are black parents of school children or black neighbors a few streets over or black people at neighboring churches. The teacher might begin by admitting, “This is what I want to do, how would you approach this? Or, how do we approach it as a team? How can we build a team of collaboration so that we all accept the responsibility of educating ourselves and our youths about the power of words to heal or to harm?” This effort then becomes something shared as opposed to something that one person allegedly owns.
How might a K-12 teacher go about teaching the n-word?
At the elementary level, I can imagine bringing in children’s picture books to use in conjunction with a segment on the civil rights movement, because students talk about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Look at some of the placards [held by white people at 1960s civil rights] protests and see if some of them have been airbrushed or the messages sanitized. Talk about language, about words and emotion, about words and pain. Consider the role of words in the brutal attacks on black people during slavery, during Jim Crow, during the civil rights movement. Consider how words were part of the attacks on black people.
Depending on how old the students are, a teacher might talk about the violence that involved lynching and castration, and how the n-word was part of the everyday discourse around race relations at the time. Then bring in some hip-hop, depending again on the age. If these are middle school students or high school students, a teacher can talk specifically about hip-hop and how often the n-word is used and in a specific context. … There are many ways that a teacher can talk about the n-word without necessarily focusing on just one aspect—like whether or not Huck should have used the n-word when he references Jim [in Huckleberry Finn]. Any conversation about the n-word has to be about language and thinking more broadly.
What should teachers keep in mind as they teach about the n-word?
Remember the case of the white teacher who told the black student to sit down and said, “Sit down, nigga.” And then the teacher is chastised by the administration and of course there is social disruption. He said, “I didn’t say ‘Sit down, nigger,’ I said ‘Sit down, nigga,’ and that’s what I hear the students saying.” I’m thinking, first, you are an adult, white teacher. Secondly, do you imitate everything that you see and hear others doing or saying? At some level, there has to be some self-critique and critical awareness and sensitivity to difference. Just because someone else is doing it doesn’t mean that I do it even if and when I surely can.
In my courses, I’m more interested in raising questions than in finding answers to them. I think the questions lead to potential self-discovery. It’s not about whether or not a person uses the n-word. I try to move the class beyond easy binaries—“Well, blacks can use it, but whites can’t.” That line of thinking doesn’t take us very far at all. What we are trying to do, at least the way I have conceptualized and practiced this discovery, is so much more. The class strives to teach us all manner of ways to talk about, think about and to understand ourselves, and each other, and why and how we fit in the rest of the world.
Oppression typically operates as a system. This means that there are multiple forces taking away someone’s power based on a part of their identity (their sex, sexual orientation, skin color, etc). All of these forces work together to marginalize, subordinate, dehumanize, or otherwise devalue groups of people.
Nas & Damian Marley – Patience Lyrics
Here we are
Here we are
This one right here is for the people
Sabali, sabali, sabali yonkote
Sabali, sabali, sabali kiye
Ni kêra môgô
[Verse 1: Damian Marley]
Some of the smartest dummies
Can’t read the language of Egyptian mummies
An’ a flag on a moon
And can’t find food for the starving tummies
Pay no mind to the youths
Cause it’s not like the future depends on it
But save the animals in the zoo
Cause the chimpanzee dem a make big money
This is how the media pillages
On the TV the picture is
Savages in villages
And the scientist still can’t explain the pyramids, huh
Evangelists making a living on the videos of ribs of the little kids
Stereotyping the image of the images
And this is what the image is
You buy a khaki pants
And all of a sudden you say a Indiana Jones
An’ a thief out gold and thief out the scrolls and even the buried bones
Some of the worst paparazzis I’ve ever seen and I ever known
Put the worst on display so the world can see
And that’s all they will ever show
So the ones in the West
Will never move East
And feel like they could be at home
Dem get tricked by the beast
But a where dem ago flee when the monster is fully grown?
Solomonic linage whe dem still can’t defeat and them coulda never clone
My spiritual DNA that print in my soul and I will forever Own Lord
Major forces that make up a system of oppression are:
*Diminished legal rights/status of the oppressed group
*Negative attitudes and heightened violence toward the group
*Decreased social investment (money, resources) in the group
*Employment, educational, institutional discrimination/exclusion
*Oppressed group’s identity reduced to stereotypes
*Loss of power and freedom within the group
*Oppressed groups adopting destructive beliefs about their own group (internalized oppression)
*Perpetuation of the oppressor’s power
*Privileges afforded to the oppressor
Throughout most of the world, the most privileged groups are: light skin, male, heterosexual, transgender, conventionally attractive, Christian/Gentile, healthy/able bodied, wealthy/financially comfortable. These various groups have historically been, and currently are, some of the major groups that contribute to oppression. But, that doesn’t mean they have to be!
WHAT IS INTERNALIZED OPPRESSION?
When people are targeted, discriminated against, or oppressed over a period of time, they often internalize (believe and make part of their self-image – their internal view of themselves) the myths and misinformation that society communicates to them about their group. Exploited peasants might internalize the ideas that they can’t do any other kind of work, that their lives were meant to be as they are, and that they’re worth less than people with wealth or education. Women might internalize the stereotype that they are not good at math and science, or people of color might internalize the myth that they are not good workers,
When people from targeted groups internalize myths and misinformation, it can cause them to feel (often unconsciously) that in some way they are inherently not as worthy, capable, intelligent, beautiful, good, etc. as people outside their group. They turn the experience of oppression or discrimination inward. They begin to feel that the stereotypes and misinformation that society communicates are true and they act as if they were true. This is called internalized oppression.
Internalized oppression affects many groups of people: women, people of color, poor and working class people, people with disabilities, young people, elders, Jews, Catholics, immigrants, gays, and many other groups.
Not all members of groups that are discriminated against or oppressed necessarily turn stereotypes inward. Many remain proud of their heritage, or are able to take prominent places in the larger society through their exercise of effort, intelligence, talent, interpersonal skill, and self-respect. Many members of oppressed groups try to escape their situations by emigration or other means, and many succeed. Some rise up and overthrow their oppressors, although this can cause nearly as many problems as it solves.
Don’t assume that just because someone is a member of a group that has experienced bias, he is suffering from the results of internal oppression. Individuals are different, and have different experiences and backgrounds. If you assume internal oppression in all cases without getting to know the individual at least a little, you may, in trying to be helpful and empathetic, find that instead you’re being condescending or insulting.
It is important to note that internalized oppression is not the fault of people whom it affects. No one should be blamed or blame themselves for having been affected by discrimination. Nevertheless, as community members, we have to face these barriers in order to achieve our goals.
While the stereotypes that people internalize are imposed by society, we all, whether we are members of the favored majority or the oppressed or unfairly treated minority, have a personal responsibility to confront those stereotypes. As members of the majority, we need to help and support those in the minority to see that their personal worth has nothing to do with society’s current or past prejudice. And as members of the minority, we have a responsibility to listen to those among us who challenge the majority view, and to analyze and challenge it ourselves. We may need support and guidance in doing so – that’s what Paulo Freire provided to those he worked with, and what he wrote about.
There are two ways that internalized oppression functions:
Internalized oppression operates on an individual basis. A person believes that the stereotypes and misinformation that she hears are true about herself. She holds herself back from living life to her full potential or she acts in ways that reinforce the stereotypes and are ultimately self-defeating.
Internalized oppression occurs among members of the same cultural group. People in the same group believe (often unconsciously) the misinformation and stereotypes that society communicates about other members of their group. People turn the oppression on one another, instead of addressing larger problems in society. The results are that people treat one another in ways that are less than fully respectful. Often people from the same cultural group hurt, undermine, criticize, mistrust, fight with, or isolate themselves from one another.
Understanding internalized oppression is invaluable for community builders. People simply can’t fight effectively for themselves when they believe the problem is their own fault or that something is inherently wrong with them. To empower communities to become more effective at fighting the battles for better health care, good education, a safe environment, and adequate jobs, community members have to learn how to overcome the discouragement, confusion, and divisions that are a result of internalized oppression.