Using the N-word in Educational Settings: is it ever justifiable?

Abby Saks

Possibly one of the most relevant subjects in etymology is the usage of the N-word. Many non-black people now refrain from using the actual word and instead refer to it with that well-known substitute in order to avoid intensifying any of the racism and inhumanity that the word represents. Over the past century, however, black communities have reclaimed and divested this word from its original offense, so when a non-black person uses it, it is generally seen as appropriation against the conditions that black people have inscribed for it.

This debate over the N-word’s usage by non-black individuals continues at many learning institutions, including BCA, where sophomores read Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). The novel’s white characters frequently say the N-word to reference a black character. When discussing the novel in class, some non-black students and teachers choose to use the actual N-word for historical veracity and educational purposes. Some students do not feel this is necessary, or the best way to teach its history. Others feel like it helps to truly convey the N-word’s importance.

Illustration from the original 1884 edition of the novel featuring its two main characters: Huckleberry Finn (right) and Jim (left), who was an escaped enslaved person

“My teacher did not say [the N-word], and I am very glad about it,” said one BCA student. “I heard of peers’ teachers who did so and it made me uncomfortable despite not being there. I was very clear before starting sophomore year that if my (not black) teacher did say it I’d ask them to stop because no matter the reason (including education) it should not be said by those who should not say it.” 

The student felt that it is not necessary for non-black students to say the word in class since calling it “the N-word” actually establishes its importance.

Several other BCA students interviewed held similar opinions. “I don’t think it’s necessary for non-black people to say the n-word when discussing any type of literature,” said a junior. “Even if it relates to the work, I feel non-black people repeating racist sentiments can be harmful to black students who would now have to deal with racism both inside and out of the classroom.”

The response of another student particularly exemplified that potential harm. “My teacher did use the n-word and it made me very uncomfortable,” they said. “The first time she said it and justified saying it I felt like crying to be honest.”

The student also said that, even though the teacher did explain the meaning of the n-word, they did not feel as if it was enough to make their fellow white students understand. 

“I actually think it’s counterproductive for them to say it because they make it seem like it’s ‘just a word’,” the student said. “I think referring to it simply as ‘the n-word’ gives the word the power that it already has. This word should have power, especially for non-black people who can’t and shouldn’t say it.”

The sentiments of another BCA student echo this idea. “[Just saying ‘the N-word’] made me understand how the n-word is not a casual word and must be treated cautiously,” they said. “I feel like that actually helped me understand that power of that word more than if it had been thrown around. [It] helped me understand the somber and horrid history of the n-word more.”

On the contrary, another student felt that, while it did make them “slightly uneasy” when the teacher and a few white students used the word in class, it always felt like it was for solely educational purposes. The student said that their teacher went into great depth when discussing the N-word’s power and historical significance, and stressed the difference between the N-word and other derogatory terms without any history to them. Still, when asked if they felt like they were able to understand both the power and significance of the word, the student said, “Not fully, but I was definitely able to better understand the power of this word in comparison to others.”

Another student’s teacher did not use the N-word, and showed documentaries and a video of African American professors explaining its importance. The class then had a discussion of it, without anyone saying the word itself. This student felt that, even if non-black students had used the word when reading, it would not have been discriminatory. 

“When used as part of the text, it only conveys the historic context,” the student said. “If only used as part of the historic text and everyone is okay with hearing the word, it should be used, to not change the piece that the author wrote.” 

Ultimately, teachers and students are free to use the N-word, but can choose to avoid it to promote a better learning environment (Starkman). Studies have shown that classrooms that promote respect and civility are pedagogically more effective, and refraining from using the N-word could be viewed as an exercise in civility (Starkman). Still, it is unclear whether BCA will ever implement any guidelines against its usage.