Reports of the n-word being used on our campus have prompted me, a language professor, to reflect on how we choose to use language at the University of Dallas, how language study informs those choices and, by extension, how it nurtures our sense of community.
As a professor in Modern Languages, I often think about how language shapes our pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful. I guide my students to negotiate meaning in Spanish, to think about how language relates to culture, and to reflect on what their Spanish studies teach them about their own languages and cultures. In short, my students and I discover how language learning enhances our experience of being human.
I have been mentored into teaching at UD by expert colleagues who have shown me that our Core language classes are about, among other things, making the foreign familiar. Yet while we aim to make the foreign familiar, learned familiarity does not equate to native fluency. A language learner can imagine cultural contexts for the use of language, but cannot experience the use of that language as a native speaker would.
We can relate these lessons from language learning to our use of English and our experiences of American culture. We know that the n-word was used by slaveholders, segregationists, and mobs to mark Black Americans as inferior and exploitable, signaling them as susceptible to unequal treatment, mockery, assault, and murder. That word, like a tuning fork, resonates with a shameful part of our history and reminds us that history is also our present.
Uttering that word brings its original contexts and abuses into our midst. Here are two questions, then. Can non-Black persons say it? Should we? To those who propose that the word can be sanitized from its historical contamination for academic purposes, I respond that my time as a learner and teacher of languages suggests otherwise.
Perhaps, like a language learner considering a cultural context, people who are not Black may imagine a context in which to use that word: in a historical document, a work of literature, a joke, a slur. If we are able to do so, it is because we lack native fluency with Black Americans’ experiences of oppression. For people of color hearing that word, there is no context free from historical contamination because that word is never separated from experiences of oppression.
Using that word in the classroom, in a conversation, or in a presentation is likely protected by the First Amendment and by academic freedom. However, in the context of using our Christian freedom for the good of others, St. Paul writes, “‘Everything is lawful,’ but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is lawful,’ but not everything builds up” (New American Bible Revised Edition, 2011, 1 Cor. 10:23-24). I consider that it is not beneficial for non-Black persons to use that word. It does not build us up as a community. Nor does it build us up as reflective users of language.
When people who are not Black shun that word, we respect the distance between knowing a word’s meaning and knowing the harm it inflicts on another’s mind and heart. Precisely because we are “free” to use them, steering clear of words that dehumanize others makes us all more fully human.
Thank you, Dr. Ivers, for your honest and wise reflection on language and discourse on our campus. You make an important distinction between what might be protected/allowed and the need to understand lived experiences with that particular word. I especially appreciate that you raise the importance of grappling with a history that continues to have an impact on the present.
The Modern Languages Department and all of the University of Dallas benefit from your kindness and wisdom.
What one could add to this contribution is a reflection on the extensive use of the n word in the Black community, both in everyday contexts and in the lyrics of rap songs. In such contexts, the word’s originally negative meaning has been canceled. In certain communities, “What’s up, n?” is a totally normal greeting. Indeed, the word has gained currency in Latino communities as well.
This having been said, a lot of older Black people strongly object to the use of the word, in any context. To them, it does connote discrimination and oppression. The word cannot be used by white people … with very few exceptions. Eminem would likely get away with it.
So, in sum, the issue is quite complicated. The bottom line well may be that no word carries meaning intrinsically. Meaning always depends on context.
Oh. What one could add is deflection? I disagree. This issue is not complicated at all. It’s a word that has no business being used by those outside the black community colloquially or in reference to those of the black community. Additionally, the black community’s use of n***a is not the same as use of the n***er word, either within the black community or especially when spoken outside that community and referring to members of the black community. Historical context of the n-word is still the context held by that word today. Meaning has been embedded in that word long before you or I took our first breath. Every time my husband has been called a n***er, every time I’ve been called a n***er lover, it is the same word and the same meaning as when it was hurled at my father-in-law, sitting at the counter during Houston’s first sit-in, or my Big Momma picking cotton in the fields as a sharecropper or her parents, enslaved and working those same fields. Context is clear and the word has no place at UD.
Thank you, Professor Ivers, for your intelligent, informed and humane remarks here. I could not agree more with your central point, and I admire the way you draw upon Paul for community-sustaining wisdom to support it. It really should not be difficult to refrain.
Thank you so much for this insightful article. We need more conversations like this in the UD community, as with such a limited demographic, these conversations can sometimes be had in such a bubble. Eminem would not and could not say this word… it is because he wants to keep his credibility as a rapper that he chooses not to, never has, never will.