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Difficult issues

Topics/tags: Language, academia, rambly

Warning: Because I discuss offensive language in this musing, it includes some such language. I have done my best to limit that use.

Another week. Another Inside Higher Ed report on a student using the n-word. I’m not quite sure what to make of these videos, other than to find frustration at the number of people who feel compelled to use the word. What underlies that hatred? And what must it feel like to be the target of those videos? I can’t imagine what it must be like to know that people feel so comfortable using that word about you (or people who look like you).

But the report also got me thinking about an earlier case, one in which a student read the word aloud in discussing a James Baldwin essay, and a faculty member asked the class to discuss whether or not it was appropriate to use the word in that context. The faculty member was suspended, which, at the time, struck me as a clear violation of academic freedom. As I reflected on the videos, I realized that it’s not quite as straightforward as I once thought. I do think that the use of the word in discussions of literature requires different consideration than use in other situations [1], but I acknowledge that even discussing whether or not to use it can be hard on those affected by the word. Nonetheless, suspension seems extreme [2].

Recalling that case made me wonder what the ultimate outcome had been. Had the faculty member regained his position? I found an answer in The Minneapolis Star-Tribune. He will resume teaching in the fall, but he has lost his directorship of the Honors program.

I recalled that the faculty member had asked his students to read an article by Ta-Nehesi Coates on the use of the word. The work was thoughtful, as is most of what I’ve read by Coates. I appreciated his argument that there are a wide variety of words that can be used by one group, but not another, even something as simple as who can appropriately call someone by their nickname. Still, I consider the classroom a special context, especially when you’re reading a work in which the author has used a term intentionally. Coates’ piece doesn’t address that issue [3].

I also found parts of Coates’ essay upsetting. In particular, he writes,

A few summers ago one of my best friends invited me up to what he affectionately called his white-trash cabin in the Adirondacks. This was not how I described the outing to my family. Two of my Jewish acquaintances once joked that I’d make a good Jew. My retort was not, Yeah, I certainly am good with money. Gay men sometimes laughingly refer to one another as faggots.

I don’t know about you, but I find one of those cases significantly different than the others. Claiming a derogatory term for yourself is one thing. Associating a particular characteristic with certain people is another thing altogether. And the association of Jews with money is one of those biases that underlie anti-semitism. It would seem more appropriate if reflected on the k-word. Of course, I’ve never heard a Jew use that word, so the example doesn’t fit his argument. I’m also puzzled about his association; I don’t know about you, but if I said someone would make a good Jew, I would most likely mean that they enjoy debate and argument and even appreciate what some might call exacting details [4].

Where does that leave us? I have no idea. As I said [5], these are difficult issues. But it frustrates me that both thoughtless and thoughtful people can have attitudes and use language that have such potential to harm others.

Postscript: As I reread the paragraph from Coates, I find that white-trash cabin also fails to fit Coates’ thesis. I’m pretty sure that a friend who lives in NYC and has a cabin in the Adirondacks does not fall into the category that most call white trash [6].

[1] I’m glad that I don’t teach literature that uses the word so that I can easily say Don’t use the word in my classes.

[2] Everything I’ve read indicates that his suggestion that they class discuss whether or not to use the word came from an appropriate concern for inclusiveness.

[3] Nor was that part of its intent.

[4] Those seem to be the characteristics that lead folks to assume that one of my colleagues is Jewish.

[5] Or at least as I named this musing.

[6] A colleague reminds me that no one should use the term white trash at all. No human should be considered trash. And most who employ the term do not fit in the group to which it applies.

Version 1.0 released 2019-07-10.

Version 1.2 of 2019-07-11.