"Is It Okay for Someone to Say the N-Word?"

I haven't written anything on here since late July, despite having a queue of ideas and a lifetime's worth of potential prompts coming seemingly everyday (thanks, Trump). A lot has happened since July, especially around The Drowning Boy's Guide to Water. At some point I may write about that more. At some point, I may write more of just anything (writer's block + working full-time = the struggle). At some point I may have a more insightful blog post to work on, but tonight I just want to talk about something.

I want to talk about how words matter. I want to talk about how race matters. I want to talk about how representation matters.

I want to talk about one of my students and how much they matter.

I want to talk about getting stopped in the hall at school today by this student, who quietly pulled me aside and asked for some advice. "Is it okay for someone to say the N-word, even if they're singing it in a song?" It's important to know that this student is black—it's important to know the "someone" they're referring to is not.

I want to talk about my first thought in this moment, about my poem Country Grammar, about the premise of the poem being exactly the dilemma of this student's question. I wanted then to talk about my unresolved feelings on the matter, about the "I don't know" lodged in my throat. I wanted then to talk about looking at my student and having to remind myself I wasn't looking in a mirror.

I want to talk about growing up, about how it's not a one-time thing, but a continuous process. A long-term goal. A practice. Some situations or circumstances in your life make you grow up with more immediacy. Being a (new) teacher is one of them. I want to talk about realizing I had to "grow up" in this moment, not because I am a child or immature, but because up to this point in my young life I have not had to be an authority figure to someone on this topic. I have been in this situation countless times. I've had people who are not black use the N-word around/to me in ways that absolutely jarred me. I've made calculated decisions about when/if to call them out on it. I've made equivocations to myself about whether or not I actually felt harmed by someone using this word to me—regardless of their race, or the circumstances, or how close I was or was not with them. I've made equivocations about myself using this word. The N-word may be the most debated word in the English language, but this moment was not for debate and my past with it. It was for this student. The spinning compass needle of my morals on this topic had to find true north. Today I grew up, again.

I want to talk about No. I leaned in close to this student and told them "No. Nobody gets to use that word with you. That word doesn't change just because you sing it, or say it, or write it, or hum it. I want you to know you should feel like you can tell that to this person. And if you need help, I'm here to help you break it down for them."

I want to talk about not being sure I really could break it down, if it came to it. I want to talk about committing to trying it anyway, even if I failed, because this student needed someone to offer that. Someone who looked like them. Someone older who may have been there before.

I want to talk about representation—about how when it came time to address the issue, the student asked for me to be present. I want to talk about the thoughtfulness of my colleagues who helped all parties involved talk through the incident. I want to talk about the amazing compassion of the student, who spoke up for themself, who began by saying to the other student "I don't want you to get in trouble or anything...I'm just frustrated..." I didn't need to say much. I didn't want to. This student was the one who needed to talk. But was I just a bystander? No. I'll never know the exact degree to which my presence helped, but I do know from the look in the student's face that having a teacher of color present for possibly one of the hardest and most awkward conversations in the life of a young POC...it made a difference. Seeing me made a difference. Me seeing them made a difference.

I want to talk about how important it is to see and be seen.

I want to talk about walking back to class with the student, who had the courage to tell three teachers "I'm just feeling too tired to go back to class, I'm exhausted." When offered several options of places to go and things to do in lieu of class, the student looked me right in the eye and said "I want to go to Mr. Barnett's room." I don't teach this student in class, my room is a place they don't frequently spend time in, but today my room was where they needed to go to be themselves (again). The student sat at my desk the rest of the day decompressing while I taught a class on pre-Columbian America. At the end of the day they gave me a fist bump, looking only mildly in better shape than before.

I want to talk about how I know they'll be alright—about how I wouldn't have been alright. At that age I wouldn't have had the guts to do what they did. I remember being twice that age and still not having those guts. We are all built differently, and our sensibilities don't move in strict linear directions, but flow three-dimensionally. I wanted to say to my student that I wouldn't have had what it takes to do what they did when I was their age, and that I was proud of them.

So I did.

And they nodded. They didn't really need words.

But...I want to talk about words. The way I think of it, words are tools. I'm not one for censorship, generally speaking, and I think the natural consequences of using the wrong tools in the wrong situations are both a deterrent and a learning process. But the problem with this metaphor is that (most) real tools aren't used on other people when we use them. But words are. And some words are more harmful and devastating than others, regardless of whether they're wielded as weapons or tossed gingerly in microaggressions. A knife can cause a lot of bodily harm, but a knife is also a practical and useful tool for everyday situations. Does the N-word even come close to having this dual capability?

I don't know this student well enough to know if they'd ever use the N-word around family or friends of color as a term of endearment, and frankly that's none of my business. That side of the conversation, though important, is irrelevant to this key developmental moment. All that matters is today a student of mine was cut by a tool. When they felt the pain, they found someone who was familiar with this particular tool (and this particular wound). When the moment came, the student chose healing over reprisal. When the moment came, that student knew they needed to feel seen and represented. When the moment came, I as a teacher of color mattered to that student.

But most importantly, my student mattered. I just wanted to talk about that.

Cameron BarnettComment