Silence has meaning. In the West, silence is feared because it is seen as an indicator of a disturbance in the status quo. This fear arises from a need to resolve what feels like a problem with a calming, meaningful interjection. It also appears in all aspects of Western society—including academia.
Following a rise in the number of Black texts included in many academic spaces, the n-word and who should use it when in academic contexts has become a highly contested topic. However, as Columbia seems to continually debate the usage of the n-word in our classrooms, it is important to debunk and wholeheartedly reject the false parallel between our resistance to silence and the complexities and uniquenesses of the n-word itself.
In no social situation should the n-word be used by someone who is not Black.
No matter your intentions, this word is not for you if you are not Black. Somehow, academics have come to a consensus that a respect of the word’s history or impact earns one a pass to say it. While the administration loves to brag about its relative “diversity,” our campus is fraught with this problem. But just as professor Carl Hart succinctly deconstructed the falsities in this institution’s intentions on race, the intentions of non-Black people’s usage of the n-word must also be problematized.
The n-word is central to academic understandings of Black literature, music, or historical contexts. For example, many students who take courses pertaining to Black music encounter the word frequently. What’s important to note here, though, is that anyone who genuinely wishes to respect these works and these peoples would understand why the history of this word makes it important for only Black people to reclaim it.
Let me be clear, though: Black studies, and its source material including the n-word, are absolutely not the issue here. Most Black academics would agree with me that there is still much work to be done to broaden the realm of Black studies in this country and others. Black texts, including ones that use the n-word, are important parts of the curriculum for all students, now more than ever. Instead, the issue is that the word’s universal academic usage by people who aren’t Black indicates an ignorance towards Black humanity. If one genuinely cared about Black people—the lives they were studying—this would not be a debate.
I won’t go into detailing this history, but I can share my personal experiences. This word, for me, bears the flesh-tearing talons of its usage during slavery and the never ending racism that followed when spoken by non-Black people. Whether in Song of Solomon, The Souls of Black Folk, or any other Black text with the n-word, a sense of danger is presented when it’s spoken by someone who hasn’t felt the wound of that word.
And given the overwhelming whiteness of academia, there is nothing about these spaces that would assuage my and many other Black folks’ feelings towards this word. Academia, in spite of its occasional merits, is wholly still invested in whiteness. There has undeniably been an increase in African-American studies and Ethnicity and Race studies programs across the United States. Still, situations like Harvard’s investment in Black studies while the university dining hall staff strike for living wages display the academy’s ignorance of Black lived experiences and disrespect for the wellbeing of the actual people it studies.
Why do non-Black students want so badly to utter the n-word in academic settings? What does that yield in any academic context that can’t be provided through the use of a recording of someone else, in a different context, using the word and analyzing that? And there are many potential alternatives, from skipping the word entirely, saying “blank,” or even replacing it with the phrase “n-word”. The best option, though, would be for a professor to choose one of the above and simply invite Black students to suggest an alternative if they are uncomfortable.
What this boils down to, frankly, is the reluctance of academics—whether consciously or unconsciously—to afford Black students a sense of control over how our people are studied. White academics generally don’t wish to respect the expansive history of chattel slavery and how it still affects the realities of Black Americans to this very day. Academics can’t fathom, or perhaps simply fail to consider, the level of trauma that can come from hearing a room full of people use a centuries-old denigrating and dehumanizing phrase.
This question should not be a question anymore. If we, the Columbia community, cannot learn to defer to the students who live with the practical realities being studied in classrooms, we need to learn when to embrace silence. There is nothing to fear in silence. Instead, there is a greater power in respecting this word’s history through silence. Not every word must be said, especially when these words have such loaded histories. Words have meaning and sometimes, to make sure each student can feel they have a seat at the table, it’s better not to say anything at all.
Keenan Smith is a student at Columbia College involved in campus activism surrounding race and LGBTQIA+ identities. Keenan has been published in the Advocate and PAPER Magazine, and is on Twitter. Against the White City runs alternate Thursdays.
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