BREAKING NEWS: Using slurs to make a point sparks debate on academic freedom. Emory University law professor Robert Saunooke said he tells his students before the start of his first class that there are words and phrases he’ll use that might be uncomfortable (Atlanta Journal-Constitution 9/19/19). And he delivered on that promise by uttering the “N-Word” a couple of times.
Boom! Out of nowhere verbal lightning struck me directly.
With surgeon-like precision those words sliced into my reality, stopping me dead in my tracks during a mid-afternoon walk. No, no, no I thought; this didn’t just happen to me. But it did. I was rendered speechless, silenced, paralyzed in the moment.
Before I go on, I will say without a doubt that the N-word still raises its ugly head nowadays in public and, now it appears, in academia as well. Nobody’s naïve enough to believe otherwise. And as pointed out in the above cited newspaper, several courts have ruled in favor of faculty when they’ve used the N-word, typically while reciting a work of literature. Now however it’s used, it remains one of the worst of all derogatory terms. But it’s different when you’re on the receiving end of it directly or hear it used as a teachable moment. Then it becomes personal, very personal. It stings.
Back now to my afternoon walk.
While I recovered my senses, the SUV sped off amid a puff of exhaust smoke, its occupants rolling in laughter, leaving me in a stupor, speculating about the societal factors that gave rise to such cowardly behavior. Although I’d grown accustomed to swatting away mosquitoes during my walks, this bite penetrated my armor. The psychological swelling – the red-hot rage – commenced immediately.
Now to be clear, no group can lay exclusive claim to the N-word. Many will tell you that their version of the word (fag, slant eye, redneck, spic, raghead, bible thumper, etc.) has the same power to debilitate. This may explain in part why some groups have “taken back” the word so as to neutralize it, extract its venom, and to the bewilderment of outsiders (and the chagrin of many of us on the inside), only to be used in a familial tone within. That’s their way of seizing ownership of the word, of removing the sting.
Now my purpose here is not to evoke sympathy or guilt, nor is it to give too much ink to a few knuckled headed, racist nitwits. And as much as I wanted to, I suppressed the urge to shout back or give them the middle finger, especially when I noticed that the source of the barb wore a football jersey with the number 79 on it. That number, you see, is usually reserved for humongous 300+ pound football linemen, steak and potato-fed behemoths who tend to be much bigger and a lot faster than yours truly. A broken pride is one thing, a broken nose – mine in particular – is another. Common sense and self-preservation sometimes have a way of prevailing.
Now to finish this story, I’m happy to report that my pangs of anger were soothed further down the sidewalk when I start thinking about those who suffered a lot more – and even lost their lives – than just being called the N-word. I thought about the late Emmitt Till, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers and the scores of victims of lynch mobs. You see, my experience paled by comparison. I’m alive and well and sitting here able to write about it. That was another way for me to remove the sting.
Is there a silver lining in all this? I think so. On one side this incident serves as a reminder of the ugliness that’s still out there in 2019. On the other it presents a phenomenal opportunity to spotlight the incredible courage of a few of those who paid the ultimate price. And thanks to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution article, it also pushes the debate surrounding the word into national discourse about the boundaries of free speech.
It also gives me a chance to point to Philip Herbst’s excellent book, “The Color of Words; a dictionary of ethnic bias in the United States” (Intercultural Press, 1997). There you’ll discover the origins of the N-word and other biased words, including those aimed at other groups because of their differences. Education is another way to remove the sting.
In the end, and so as not to leave you at a complete loss as what to do personally, my advice is to peer into your workplaces, homes, places of worship, schools and deep into the inner sanctums of your conscious and ask yourself the hard question: What can I do to rip out the stings from hate words and stomp them permanently into oblivion?
Now roll up your sleeves and get to work and walking.
But please be careful…and watch out for the stings!