Can I Ask Students to Read the Racist Word I Refuse to Utter?

The n-word is back in the news, and the fact that I call it the n-word signals what sort of news it’s making. The latest controversy involves the word’s use in the classroom, not as an epithet directed at a particular person but in quoting important documents or literature in which it appears. (Think “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.”) In a recent article, the legal scholars Randall Kennedy of Harvard and Eugene Volokh of UCLA propose that we distinguish between those who hurl the word as a vicious insult and those who, in order to make larger points, quote this and similarly searing epithets as used by others. Only the first group, they argue, deserves our condemnation.   

Critics have responded with fury, including on the ground that what matters is less such distinctions than how the word is perceived by the recipients. Kennedy and Volokh have returned fire, pointing to a list of figures from the most liberal Supreme Court justices to some of the article's critics who have quoted the word in their writings. And there we rest, as uneasily as ever.

Perhaps I might offer my services as peace negotiator.

Let me begin by confessing a pair of biases that pull me in opposing directions. I doubt that I could pronounce the n-word in public. Were I to try, my lips and tongue would refuse. The term is a dreadful, contemptible epithet, evoking for me the memory of being struck in the head by a bottle tossed from a car one night in the 1970s as I walked a sleepy Georgia back road. Before the car roared away, my assailant shouted that word, along with a few others every bit as scary.

On the other hand, I would not refuse to assign a document or book because the word appears. I’ve used the term in my own writing, particularly in historical fiction, but in non-fiction too. Nor are Kennedy and Volokh the only serious people to argue we've gone too far. I would not seek to prescribe a rule for others, and I fear that those schools that have disciplined professors for pedagogic use of the word have made a grave error. I was raised not to hide history behind euphemism.

Why, then, could I not bring myself to pronounce the n-word? In part because of its insidious racial overtones, but also because it’s but one of many common terms I would not utter even if others do: what we used to call the f-word, for instance.

But here a difficulty emerges. Notice that when I say “f-word” you know exactly what word I mean. When I say “n-word” you also know exactly what word I mean. It may be that in our efforts to cleanse the public spaces of this vicious slur, we are in certain ways calling more attention to it, as the mind automatically processes the phrase and solves the puzzle of meaning. I’m old enough to remember how the bowdlerized versions of many a text once included such contraptions as “He then told me to go perform an anatomically impossible act on myself.” As a teen, I had no trouble understanding what the author was pretending to hide. I doubt that many of today’s young people come across “n-word” and ask a parent what it means.

Moreover, the avoidance can become ridiculous. It’s one thing to refer to a certain Joseph Conrad novel as “The N-Word and the Narcissus” in order to avoid pronouncing the expletive aloud. But there’s an Orwellian quality to the publisher’s 2009 decision to reissue the book with that inelegant stumble as the new title. Or maybe anti-Orwellian: so absurd is the book’s bowdlerized name that the reader automatically thinks about the omission.

Nobody would claim that the n-word is harmless. In his thoughtful book on the term’s history, Kennedy points to social science research suggesting that in the right circumstances, simply hearing the n-word people can bring prejudice to the surface. In one experiment, White subjects were asked to evaluate the performance of Black and White debaters. Planted in some groups of evaluators was a person whose task it was to use the n-word in a clearly derogatory way. Those groups gave the Black debater significantly lower evaluations than did those who heard no epithet. (These results have been replicated in other fields, such as evaluations of trial lawyers by jurors.) The n-word, Kennedy writes, is “not merely a symptom of prejudice but a carrier of the disease.”

But the point he and Volokh make in their article is that at least in the classroom, we should distinguish between uses that carry the disease and uses that don’t. Even if they’re right, I’d add a caution. Given today’s fraught atmosphere, it’s useful to offer both warning and explanation. This past fall, I included in my first-year contracts syllabus a pair of racially charged cases. One, from 1926, involved a White family seeking to escape a lease upon discovering that they’d have to share a bathroom with a Black family. The other, from 1870, involved an effort by a one-time slaveholder to recover part of his purchase money on the ground that emancipation had destroyed the value of his human chattel.

Both cases contained searing and offensive language. But I was at pains not to cast these readings upon the students unawares. I took the time to explain well in advance why I was assigning them. I wanted the class to understand, among other things, the way that the abstract beauty of seemingly harmless legal principles can be perverted to serve the needs of culture and custom. And for such a claim, showing is better than telling.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster.”

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