Every student in the classroom immediately stiffened after it was said, then looked around to exchange incredulous, discomforted glances with each other. The substitute teacher read on, encountered another racial slur in the text, and read that one out loud as well.
“This book has a lot of words I don’t like. Would someone else like to read?” the substitute offered.
Before winter break, this incident occurred in Michelle Lew’s sixth period Afrocentric English class while reading the book “The Ways of White Folks,” a collection of short stories about acts of terrorism targeting the African American community.
Various students had been reading the story popcorn-style before before the substitute read the racial slurs. All of them skipped over the n-word when it appeared in the text, and hoped she would pick up on the cue.
After the substitute read the racial slurs, the students discussed their discomfort. A few upset students left the classroom for a few moments to calm down.
The substitute was confronted by a group of students who explained why they were upset. Upon confrontation, the substitute said, “I’m sorry that you’re upset.”
A few weeks after the incident, the substitute teacher approached Assistant Principal Nic McMaster and Lew with an intense apology for her behavior in the class. She wrote a formal apology expressing regret.
All teachers should be cautioned against saying the n-word in class, even if it is for an “educational purpose.” This is because the word does not have to be said for the weight of it to be effectively discussed.
“It has to do with the level of respect for our history and how it’s been used to degrade people. I don’t want to give it any more power by speaking it. I don’t think I’m in a position to use it,” Lew explained.
As an African American girl growing up in American classrooms, it always felt derogatory for me to hear any teacher read a racial slur, no matter the context.
“I think it was a word designed solely to oppress people… I think it is important to acknowledge that the word existed in our history, yes, but that doesn’t mean I need to repeat it,” said Lew.
Having official guidelines in the English department to guide educators on the sensitive issue of speaking racial slurs in classrooms may pose as an effective solution to avoid upsetting experiences. Even simple discussions around the issue are necessary for us as an interracial society to move forward.