Please note that this article contains a racial slur
Let me start by saying that history is my favourite subject. A natural propensity for writing and an intense passion for the humanities would result in nothing else. However, I have been placed in this particular situation enough times for me to feel the need to discuss this.
I was sitting in my American foreign policy class, listening intently to the lecture. The professor was engaging, the material enthralling. We discussed the 1898 Spanish-American War and the ideological underpinnings of the American position. Our professor supplemented the lecture with a primary document, specifically, a quote from an American General.
“Nigger” was all I could remember from it.
For a moment I was shocked, fearful and rendered immobile. I recollected myself silently and continued to engage with the material. I acted as though nothing was wrong — but something was. It took me some time to find the words to articulate why.
The quote in question was living, illustrating the strength of the beliefs the slur embodied. It reminded me of the times when I was a target. It reminded me of the constant fear that I have as a black woman on this campus. It also got me thinking about what slurs really were and how they could be featured in educational settings.
Slurs, in whatever form or derivation they arise, have a complex and powerful history. In this case, “nigger” references the slavery, systemic exclusion and derision, as well as extrajudicial killings of Black people. They draw upon certain power dynamics to remind their target of their vulnerability in relation to a certain power. They deliver the threat of further violence and exploitation.
Slurs are not oppressive because they are offensive. Offensiveness, in my view, is not a useful metric by which to conduct any sort of meaningful analysis. Slurs are oppressive as a result of their very nature. These words have power because they are conceptual representations of violent histories. We should not refuse to engage with those histories, but understand that those histories are continuous. We should make a practice of prefacing our interactions with slurs with these ideas in mind.
Of course, this was not the aim of the professor, and no one should interpret the situation in that manner. I am still excited to attend the lecture and hound my professor’s office hours. Our learning environments should be open to all and our language should reflect that collective desire. Additionally, we should not censor our pasts or cushion hard truths. I am a firm believer of actively and thoroughly critiquing as well as questioning norms wherever they exist. We gain nothing and lose everything when we refuse to ask or answer the most difficult questions. Especially when our own histories are the subject matter.
What I am asking for is awareness. Be mindful of the ways in which we are still embedded in large, ongoing and pervasive social dynamics. Be mindful of the way in which our actions confirm broader and more sinister social systems. Continue to have education be the forefront of subverting those dangerous systems whenever possible.
Essentially, a little heads up would have been nice.