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Classrooms grapple with racial slurs in classic American novels

A long-standing debate about the right way to teach classic books with racial slurs has been renewed

A University of Washington student at the We Are Not Silent rally organized by the Asian American Pacific Islander Coalition Against Hate and Bias in Bellevue, Washington. Photo via AFP
A University of Washington student at the We Are Not Silent rally organized by the Asian American Pacific Islander Coalition Against Hate and Bias in Bellevue, Washington. Photo via AFP

The recent dismissal of a white New York professor for reading aloud the "N-word" from a Mark Twain novel has shone a spotlight on the use of racial slurs in American classrooms. It has renewed a long-standing debate about how books from some of the United States' most famous authors should be taught during an age of reckoning with racial injustice.

After years of hearing the term read from the texts of writers such as Twain and William Faulkner, students are increasingly taking a stand.

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"There was no reason that I should have to go to my class and hear that slur," said Dylan Gilbert recalling the time in 2019 when her white English teacher at the University of Michigan uttered the term while reciting a passage from Faulkner.

Gilbert, who is Black, walked out of class. "It felt like a reminder that even though I had gotten into Michigan I would still not be afforded the same opportunity for a safe learning environment as my white peers," she told AFP.

The issue came into sharp focus again last month when Hannah Berliner Fischthal, who is white, departed St. John's University in Queens, NYC. She apologized after upsetting several students by pronouncing the racial slur out loud while reading an extract from Twain's 1894 book "Pudd'nhead Wilson"—having first explained the context for the word in Twain's text and saying she hoped it would not cause offense.

The incident came after another professor, also white, this time at Duquesne University in Pennsylvania, was dismissed for using the slur during a course.

"The word has such a history and such a psychological emotional impact that just hearing the word, for some people, can be disruptive," said Arizona State University English professor Neal Lester, who is Black.

Derived from a Latin word, it became widely used in 18th Century America, partly to dehumanize African Americans and cast them as an inferior race. Lester says he never says the word in his classroom.

Vershawn Young, a Black communications professor, takes a different view. When, in June 2020, his employer, the University of Waterloo, announced that the word was banned on campus, Young refused to adhere to the new rule. "When reading from a text, I say the word," he told AFP. "When students quote the text, they too are free to speak what they read. However, they also may replace the word with its euphemism. What they can't do is ignore it."

Young says he always prepares his students that it is coming so they aren't shocked. "Outside of quotes, I do not use the word because I recognize my authority in relation to the multiple sensitivities that my students embody," he added.

In an article in The Conversation last year, Young wrote that the ban on his campus censored Black professors like himself. "I belong to multiple Black communities, where we use the N-word in six or seven culturally rich ways," he wrote, adding that banning it "serves the purposes of white supremacy."

In recent decades it has been culturally acceptable for Black people to use the word. It is regularly heard in discussions, movies or music, hip-hop songs being the most obvious example. "Hearing a non-black person say the N-word is always offensive and harmful to me," said Gilbert, the student who objected to her white teacher using it. "(But) I have no problem with Black people saying (it). In my personal opinion the word is never violent or threatening to me when it comes out of Black person's mouth," she added.

Wendy Kaminer, a lawyer and writer who used to be an American Civil Liberties Union board member, said "the distinction between quoting a racial slur and using a racial slur has been completely erased." "I think that's quite problematic," she told AFP.

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Kaminer says the disappearance of the word from university campuses is part of a wider trend that started in the 1990s of banning other terms, including relating to sexuality and minorities. She thinks the United States, where freedom of speech is enshrined in the constitution, is moving towards a more western European approach to the regulation of what people can and can't say.

For Lester, the Arizona State University professor, the answer is to talk about the word and its complex history without uttering it.

"I've had many conversations in class around the word without actually saying it," he said. "That in and of itself is not a huge intellectual gymnastics routine."

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