In Defense of the N-word: Context Should Determine its Adoption by Professors

On college and university campuses, no self-respecting individual would use the N-word as a racial slur, given its links to slavery and the dehumanization of Africans. But a marked shift in attitudes has occurred. Professors, particularly white professors, must now refrain from referring to the N-word in any capacity.

This eradicationist agenda, however, is misguided. In some cases, voicing the N-word is warranted during classroom discussions, provided that the goal is to expose historical or contemporary racism.

The Eradicationist Perspective

The current trend is to discipline professors who vocalize the N-word, even when they are teaching “anti-racist” initiatives. This past October, a controversy erupted during an online lecture when University of Ottawa Professor Verushka Lieutenant-Duval mentioned that some historically persecuted minorities reappropriate derogatory concepts and terms to liberate themselves from their oppressors. She offered the N-word as an exemplar—and not the abbreviated version.

Her class was initially suspended but then was allowed to resume, amid an outcry by 34 professors who signed a letter of support. Yet, four colleagues denounced her outright in a statement of solidarity: “To pronounce or write this word is to perpetuate the circulation of a word whose sole purpose has been, and continues to be, to dehumanize black people. . . . If someone uses the word ‘n,’ we will consider that person to be racist for using it, given the history of that word.”

This absolutist stance was recently endorsed in an opinion piece published by The Conversation titled “What’s in a Word?” The author forwards several rhetorical questions in response to the 34 professors who supported Professor Lieutenant-Duval: “Why is this conversation still happening? Why do white and non-Black people insist on uttering that word, the n-word? And when asked not to use it, why are they fighting for control of it?”

Another staunch supporter of eradication is Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor, an associate professor of history at Smith College. During a TED Talks seminar, “Why it’s so hard to talk about the N-word,” she describes the conditions required for open, honest classroom conversations. The most important of these is non-negotiable: “not saying the word.”

Accommodationists disagree. From their viewpoint, whites can say the N-word if its adoption results in a clearer perception of anti-black racism. Prominent academics provide plenty of insight in this regard.

The Accommodationist Perspective    

For accommodationists, vocalizing the N-word is appropriate in some scenarios. For instance, Shannon Dea, dean of arts and professor of philosophy at the University of Regina, asks whether the N-word should be spoken in class: “The answer is yes. Scholars need to be able to say the word in the course of studying it. . . . For some professors in some contexts, saying the N-word is the right methodological and pedagogical choice.”

Because academic freedom demands similar standards for all professors, irrespective of race, Dea reminds us that “if you can’t fire a Black professor for saying the N-word, then you can’t fire a white one for saying it.” In theory, Dea is correct. In reality, a double standard remains.

Take, for example, poet and novelist Laurie Sheck. A respected professor at the New School in New York City, Sheck said the N-word while discussing the celebrated works of black essayist James Baldwin. She admitted using the actual word because Baldwin did: “We have to give [Baldwin] credit that he used the word he did on purpose,” Sheck said.

When a student told Sheck that white people should never say the N-word, Sheck told her that the eradicationist perspective was “one school of thought.” Sheck is adamant that circumstances dictate usage and that students “should be trusted to determine when the word is used in an educational context, not a deliberately hurtful one.”

After receiving a complaint, the administration proceeded with an investigation, which left Sheck’s future uncertain. Months later, the university concluded that Sheck had not violated their policy concerning discrimination.

The accommodationist perspective is also shared by black Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy. Kennedy suggests that the N-word possesses “good uses,” depending on the situation: “The word takes on its meaning from the context in which it’s spoken: tone of voice, who is saying it, where it is said, what the intention is of the saying.”

Kennedy is then asked that all-important question: What happens if a white person levels the N-word? His response is worth quoting at length:

I’m glad that for the most part it’s a word that is presumptively wrongful to use. I think that’s fine. But that’s not the end of the conversation. [italics mine] It’s presumptively wrong to use n****r, but a presumption can be overcome. So if a white guy uses the word n****r—if anybody uses the word n****r—I’d say presumptively there’s a problem. But then dig a little deeper and say, Well, what’s going on? What is this person saying? Why did he say it? What is he attempting to accomplish? There may be answers to all those questions that are perfectly fine. And at the end of hearing the perfectly fine answers, I’d say, fine. It’s okay.

This logic also applies to college and university campuses. Students are expected to be mature enough to distinguish between use and mention—between professors who deploy the N-word as a racial slur and those who say it to challenge racism. In Kennedy’s opinion, those students who cannot appreciate this difference are simply “unprepared for university life.”

When a white professor wishes to discuss how language operates as an assault on black freedom, equality, and dignity, nothing exemplifies this more than the N-word. This might explain why accommodationists periodically insist on using the unabbreviated version. And they ought to be free to do so.


Image: Joao Cruz, Public Domain

Stuart Chambers

Stuart Chambers

Stuart Chambers, PhD, teaches in the School of Sociological and Anthropological studies at the University of Ottawa. Contact: schamber@uottawa.ca ; Twitter: @StuartChambers9

8 thoughts on “In Defense of the N-word: Context Should Determine its Adoption by Professors

  1. Universities are no longer centers of scholarship and learning; rather, they are political organizations that advocate vacuous authoritarian concepts like “social justice” and “sustainability.” The regulation of speech is characteristic of authoritarianism rather than higher learning.

  2. “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” — George Orwell, Preface to Animal Farm

    There are three things being missed here:

    First, if a word can be banned, then other words can be banned as well. If the state can ban a word, and anything done by a public university is state action, then the state can ban other words as well. “Russian Collusion” comes to immediate mind, and how many people would have tolerated then-President Trump ordering that phrase be banned?

    Likewise, if not hurting the feelings of others can be mandated, then it becomes permissible to mandate that the feelings of others not be hurt. Remember those Trump baby balloons? Yes, they could be banned, along with those pink hats commonly referred to by a vulgar term that I chose not to print here — that I chose not to.

    Freedom of speech is absolute if it is to have any meaning — be it that of the Nazis marching through Stokie or Cohen writing a different vulgarity on his jacket and wearing it into the courthouse, “in the presence of women and children”, to express his opposition to the draft. (Cohen v. California)

    Second, it’s even more Orwellian to say that certain words can only be used in specific governmentally-approved contexts and only to express govermentally-approved viewpoints. It’s the same issue as burning the US flag — it’s *because* it is hateful speech that it is so important to protect it.

    Third, to decree that only certain people can utter a word is to create titles of nobility, something which we fought a war over back in 1776 and which our Constitution explicitly prohibits. And to dispense this privilege on the basis of one’s skin color is racism in it’s most vile and vulgar sense — it’s the modern incarnation of the White Only water fountain. It is wrong…

    This is about power and little else — it’s about having and flaunting power over others, and as Lord Acton correctly noted, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. This is about bullies and bullying.

    NB: The Preface was not printed until the New York Times did it in 1972, and it can be found here: https://www.nytimes.com/1972/10/08/archives/the-freedom-of-the-press-orwell.html

  3. Lenny Bruce! Thou shouldst be living at this hour…
    (h/t Wm. Wordsworth, London, 1802)

  4. While people may properly be censured or penalized for threatening or harassing others, people should be free to say whatever they like using whatever words they wish. (It’s the harassing for which they should be taken to task, not the words they used in harassing someone.) So I disagree with Stu’s requirement that the conversation be about racism. Use the phrase “the n-word” (or “n****r” or whatever) only after you have been asked to do so by a party to the conversation. Otherwise, speak plainly and directly. Euphemism and indirection do not become a teacher or intellectual.

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