Words Matter in Our Work Against Racism

by Annie Soisson, CELT Director

As instructors, it is essential to look for and confront our own racism and examine our pedagogical choices. We have to understand that our social identities can’t be divorced from our content or our words, and words matter. We will not always get it right, and our responses and self-corrections in response to feedback will be crucial in maintaining the confidence of Black members of our community that things can be different – even if only in our classrooms and departments initially. This article centers on one aspect of that work – our positionality, our use of potentially harmful words, and their effect on learning and emotional safety of our students.

Words can harm

The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed have recently featured a number of cases of faculty who have used the N word in the classroom, and the strong student and university reactions to its use (Flaherty 2020, Osei 2019, Redden 2020). It is clear from these cases that the impact, even when not intentional, is powerful and harmful. “… there is good reason to worry about the harms minoritized students experience when they are exposed to slurs in class, even if those slurs aren’t directed against them” (Dea, 2020). Emotion and cognition are linked (Immordino-Yang & Damasio 2007), and learning may become impossible once a student is triggered by the use of a slur that has in the past been used directly against them, their loved ones, and their ancestors. The term signals that their status is marginal, and its use may result in a loss of trust between instructor and student.  

“We stand as tourists before this word, neck deep in the darkness of its history, choking on the stench of its legacy, so that we might understand it a bit better, the last great taboo in the English language. … it still wields terrible power.”

Endo, 2012

When considering using or responding to historically harmful or non-inclusive language in the classroom, even if the course being taught is centered on race or other marginalized identities, and even if it is part of our past teaching approach, we must act with a strong awareness of self, our students, and potential harm, particularly at this moment in history. Our positionality, i.e., the ways that our social identities impact our values, viewpoints, and ways of understanding the world (Sanchez, 2010), matters when using this word that has caused centuries of harm and still invokes white supremacy especially, though not only, when used by a white faculty member. 

In this article, for example, I have made a choice not to use the full word for this racial slur against Blacks in the United States, but to refer to it as “the N word.” This is not to ignore or erase the important history behind it, but as a matter of respect, and an understanding of my own identities related to its use. The impact of white faculty using particular words seems an important part of the deep reflection we need to undertake when teaching about race and our pedagogical choices.  

What about academic freedom? 

Academic freedom continues to remain an important protection for all college and university educators, and especially for minoritized scholars and anti-oppressive scholars. Shannon Dea from the University of Regina speaks to this: 

However, just because professors may say the N-word doesn’t mean they should. For some professors in some contexts, saying the N-word is the right methodological and pedagogical choice. Collective agreements are too blunt instruments to elaborate which considerations make the choice right, and must therefore cast a wide net. But professors contemplating uttering the N-word or any other hateful slur have a moral responsibility to understand the power and the potential harms of those words, and to seek to weight their scholarly objectives against the goal of cultivating supportive, welcoming learning environments for students of all races and genders. Professors can’t be fired for erring on the side of academic freedom rather than inclusion, but that shouldn’t prevent us thinking that they’ve made the wrong call.

Dea 2020

This word has always been a weapon of white supremacy, and can’t be separated from our identities. So, if you are thinking about using “the N word” in your teaching, as one of the strongest examples of slurs in the United States, please reconsider. For students who walk through life every day with the weight of racism on their shoulders and in their bodies, the impact cannot be worth it.

Our work as educators is to, at the very least, do no harm. Those of use who are white have specific powers and privileges that are associated with that identity, and we can help correct the many inequities and injustices that we have perpetrated and continue to perpetrate against Blacks in the United States. As an institution committed to antiracism and oppression of any kind, words matter. Let’s choose them carefully.

As Tufts works toward becoming an anti-racist institution, there will be many bumps in the road. These bumps will require those of us from the dominant white U.S. culture to remain committed to continuous reflection and self-interrogation, openness, pushback when we get it wrong, and working toward equity and justice. We will often be uncomfortable. But then again, why shouldn’t we be? For how many years have our minoritized colleagues and our students been uncomfortable, invisible, marginalized, unable to fully engage, and harmed both physically and emotionally? Tiredness, fear, and avoidance are reactions that we need to work through in order to become truly anti-racist. Strength, conviction, and persistence are necessary.