We don’t talk about the “N” word enough. Yes, THAT “N” word. You know, THE “N” word. It’s the Voldemort of words: never to be uttered except in the most necessary of circumstances. My students struggle with the “N” word, too. Some believe that using it unabashedly takes the wind out of its sails. Others believe that it’s too controversial. I tend to agree with the latter, but only because I never really need to say the word. In that respect, I’m like the non-smoker who votes for a ban on smoking. If I don’t need to use it, nobody else does either. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t get used. It’s especially common in high schools where rap music is as common as the word itself.
I don’t claim to be an expert on race. When it comes to race, I have only my own experiences. As do each of my students – black and white alike. Nobody is an authority on race (excepting those who make it a core passion or academic study), but our experiences as people are vastly different – which is why we need to talk about it. Openly. Together. In the same room. And we do talk openly about race in my classroom for two reasons. First, race is a central issue in American Literature. Second, race is a central issue in my students’ lives. It’s a good conversation to have because it’s a conversation few of them have ever had in a constructive and safe environment. Some students readily admit that they aren’t comfortable talking about race. Seems to me like that’s exactly why we should have a conversation in the first place. Other issues, like sex and drugs, can make students uncomfortable – those are times when I need to defer to the emotional needs of the student. But while these kids can avoid sex and drugs, they can’t avoid diversity – so we talk about it openly.
When we first talk about race in my classroom, my white students instantly turn to the black students – as though my black students are prepared (and eager) to speak on behalf of the entire black community. We soon discover that my white students have a lot more to say about race than my black students. This is a natural consequence of being in the majority – my white kids rarely think about race as it applies to them- only as it applies to others – so they have more unprocessed ideas and feelings. My black students still struggle with some aspects of race, but have generally spent more time confronting the issue, either passively or directly. So our first hurdle is getting everyone to understand that race is a two-way issue – it is not like cancer or the flu; it is not some disease owned entirely by those who suffer from it.
Without fail, my white students first ask why we have a black history month but not a white history month. I tend to answer with the obvious. We already have a white history month. We have eleven white history months. More to the point, how is black history different from my history. Is the ubiquitous George Washington Carver not also a part of my history any more than George Washington is part of African-American history? It seems to me like a wiser use of our time should be to take whatever time and effort we invest in Black History Month and use that energy to make sure that our history classes include a fair and balanced portrayal of our nation’s history – honorable and dishonorable.
My white students really struggle with who gets to use the “N” word. It seems to be socially understood that my white students aren’t really allowed to use the word, while my black students have the option available to them if they wish. Nowhere is this more awkward than a group of white and black students singing along to a song that uses the word. Do I say it or not? Both races have to make a decision, but you get the sense that it’s tough for everyone; tough for the white kids who have to make a decision, and tough for the black kids who have to watch their white friends flinch in the face of diversity.
And it’s here that we have the most important conversation of the year.
We talk about power constructs. It’s the first time my students have linked power to being. To them, power is the domain of adults – and all adults are essentially nothing more than adults – not black or white or male or female. Adults have power and kids do not. To them, there is no delineation between which adults have power. It’s the first time they’ve thought about how power is shared, moved, stolen, and shifted up and down social ladders.
We begin by thinking of society as a ladder – some are higher up the ladder than others. Each of us occupies a rung on the ladder. There are people above us, and there are people below us. It’s not how it should be in a democracy, but it is how it is. But there isn’t just one ladder – there are thousands of ladders based on religion, gender, masculinity, femininity, body weight, beauty, income, fashion sense, neighborhood, intelligence, and hundreds more. Collectively, these combine to form a big social ladder. Rich, white, heterosexual, Christian, good looking, physically healthy, mentally stable men occupy the top rung of the ladder, and their opposites sit at the bottom.
Once you understand the social ladder concept, you can understand why there is a double-standard regarding who can use the “N” word.
It is an acceptable practice for those who occupy a lower rung to shake their fist upward, and unacceptable for those higher on the ladder to push downward. Women can trash men all day long, but men aren’t allowed to say much in response. Poor people can say “tax the rich!”, but rich people aren’t nearly as welcome to scream “tax the poor!” without looking like heartless bastards. Good looking people aren’t supposed to laugh at ugly people for wearing a $5 fanny-pack, but nobody seems to care much when an ugly person laughs at a good looking person for sporting a $400 purse. Fat people can growl at skinny people, but skinny people aren’t really supposed to growl back – unless the fat person is trying to steal food from their plate. I can make jokes about fat people stealing food; most of you cannot.
The difference is social power. You simply aren’t allowed to steal power from those lower than you on the ladder without looking like a racist, sexist, elitist, chump with no respect for others. If you are to improve your own standing, it is by reaching up and pulling others down as a way of pulling yourself up. You cannot step on the heads of others to make yourself feel better – hence the elementary adage “don’t put others down”. But you can reach up and try to pull others down, socially speaking. There is some debate about the number of black voters in California who voted to ban gay marriage (a debate largely created by a single news organization that seems to benefit from minority classes appearing to be odds with each other). Regardless of whether the presumption that African-Americans are more or less accepting of other minorities is myth or reality, it speaks to the fact that unless you are the bottom rung, there still may be power struggles at all points on the ladder, not just at the top.
Similarly, those who occupy the same rung on the ladder are able to use derogatory language to describe themselves and others who share the same rung. Words like “dyke”, “queer”, and “fag” are exclusively the property of those who identify with the words. For anyone else to use them is an insult.
And so it is that my black students seem to have the ability to choose whether or not to use the “N” word, while my white students don’t seem to have that option.
It is a false argument among those who possess the power to suggest that pulling people down the ladder is just as bad as pushing people down the ladder; that we should do unto others as we would have others do unto us. Not so. What is fair isn’t always equal, and while the golden rule is a great rule, it doesn’t apply to social construct theory. It might be true that “reverse racism” exists, but it hardly puts a dent in the power structure of the white establishment, so it doesn’t really do much harm; whereas it’s opposite has been the primary tool of oppression and the damage is real and measurable to the African-American community. It’s also interesting to note that while people like Rush Limbaugh claim that those lower than him on the ladder should never gain power at his expense (i.e. affirmative action), he owes the entirety of his success to snapping at the heels of those higher than him on the political ladder.
What is fair isn’t always equal. And that’s not a bad lesson to learn in any classroom.