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    Classrooms grapple with racial slurs in classic novels

    Thomas URBAIN

    NEW YORK (AFP) – The recent dismissal of a white New York professor for reading aloud the “N-word” from a Mark Twain novel has shone a spotlight on the use of racial slurs in American classrooms.

    It has renewed a long-standing debate about how books from some of the United States’ (US) most famous authors should be taught during an age of reckoning with racial injustice.

    After years of hearing the term read from the texts of writers such as Twain and William Faulkner, students are increasingly taking a stand. “There was no reason that I should have to go to my class and hear that slur,” said Dylan Gilbert recalling the time in 2019 when her white English teacher at the University of Michigan uttered the term while reciting a passage from Faulkner.

    Gilbert, who is Black, walked out of class.

    “It felt like a reminder that even though I had gotten into Michigan I would still not be afforded the same opportunity for a safe learning environment as my white peers,” she told AFP.

    The issue came into sharp focus again last month when Hannah Berliner Fischthal, who is white, departed St John’s University in Queens, New York.

    A University of Washington student holds a sign that reads ‘hate has no place’ at the ‘We Are Not Silent’ rally in Bellevue, Washington. PHOTO: AFP

    She apologised after upsetting several students by pronouncing the racial slur out loud while reading an extract from Twain’s 1894 book Pudd’nhead Wilson – having first explained the context for the word in Twain’s text and saying she hoped it would not cause offence.

    The incident came after another professor, also white, this time at Duquesne University in Pennsylvania, was dismissed for using the slur during a course.

    “The word has such a history and such a psychological emotional impact that just hearing the word, for some people, can be disruptive,” said Arizona State University English professor Neal Lester, who is Black.

    Derived from a Latin word, it became widely used in 18th Century America, partly to dehumanise African Americans and cast them as an inferior race.

    Lester said he never said the word in his classroom.

    Vershawn Young, who is a Black communications professor, takes a different view.

    When, in June 2020, his employer, the University of Waterloo, announced that the word was banned on campus, Young refused to adhere to the new rule.

    “When reading from a text, I said the word,” he told AFP.

    “When students quote the text, they too are free to speak what they read. However, they also may replace the word with its euphemism. What they can’t do is ignore it.”

    Young said he always prepares his students that it is coming so they aren’t shocked.

    “Outside of quotes, I do not use the word because I recognise my authority in relation to the multiple sensitivities that my students embody,” he added. In an article in The Conversation last year, Young wrote that the ban on his campus censored Black professors like himself.

    “I belong to multiple Black communities, where we use the N-word in six or seven culturally rich ways,” he wrote, adding that banning it “serves the purposes of white supremacy”.

    In recent decades it has been culturally acceptable for Black people to use the word. It is regularly heard in discussions, movies or music, hip-hop songs being the most obvious example.

    “Hearing a non-black person say the N-word is always offensive and harmful to me,” said Gilbert, the student who objected to her white teacher using it.

    “(But) I have no problem with Black people saying (it). In my personal opinion the word is never violent or threatening to me when it comes out of Black person’s mouth,” she added.

    Lawyer and writer Wendy Kaminer, who used to be an American Civil Liberties Union board member, said, “The distinction between quoting a racial slur and using a racial slur has been completely erased.”

    “I think that’s quite problematic,” she told AFP.

    Kaminer said the disappearance of the word from university campuses is part of a wider trend that started in the 90’s of banning other terms, including relating to minorities.

    She thought the US, where freedom of speech is enshrined in the constitution, is moving towards a more western European approach to the regulation of what people can and can’t say.

    For Lester, the Arizona State University professor, the answer is to talk about the word and its complex history without uttering it.

    “I’ve had many conversations in class around the word without actually saying it,” she said.

    “That in and of itself is not a huge intellectual gymnastics routine.”

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