The N Word

Over the years as a teacher, I’ve had “The Talk” with kids of all backgrounds and different grades from 3rd grade to 8th grade about the N word.

To be clear, just as I am with my students, the first N word is the word nigger. The second N word is the word Nigga. First one is Hard R , second one is with an A. This offends a lot of people. Just the fact you say this in reference to a conversation.

I’m sure people reading this now are maybe offended, but hear me out. One of the things you learn in teaching diversity and multicultural training is to be clear about what you are talking about. You don’t go around containing the slur. You address it once, maybe twice, then go on to abbreviate.

Words have power. If you continue to be afraid of them, then they maintain their power to be hurtful and hateful. If you don’t understand where that word comes from, then you remain ignorant and biased. You will speak that word without knowing what you are saying and possibly without intent.

When you don’t use the word first, and just say “the N word” you could leave it open for a topic of discussion for, “well you never were clear.” Well, let’s be clear. I want you to know exactly what I’m talking about so we are not having any miscommunication. It is a bad word. It is a terrible word that shouldn’t be used.

It is a powerful word that is hateful and used to belittle, cast aspersions, insult, degrade, and humiliate whoever is on the receiving end of this word. I don’t take it lightly.

If you have never been called the N word, then you don’t know. You don’t know the slap in the face a word can do to you. You don’t know. I have been called a sand nigger, desert nigger a blanket ass, red skin, and a few more. Derogatory slanderous names exist to make other people feel better about their station in life and to make the receiver of that insult be taken down a step or two.

The N word is a tough conversation, but you must have it. There’s never a suitable time. You don’t just go, “Hey guys, today, we’re going to discuss the history of the N word.” No. That conversation grows organically from students when they are discussing or using it inappropriately or when they actually ask about it.

Which is what happened here.

About a month ago, I had a few boys, a class that wasn’t my own, having a conversation about the N word. They were going back about the Hard R and the A. They asked me about the difference and why people use the different words.

It seemed like a good conversation. The four then five kids were a mix of Black, white, and Middle Eastern. Also, these were special education students, with one of them being Autistic. They asked the question, so I felt I had to address it.

I did my usual talk

The Hard H (using the word) is a word that is meant to demean someone. It came from a long time ago. The N word is derived from the Niger meaning black. It became a slur during slavery. It continued and was used to describe Black people. It was a common term but still demeaning up until the Civil Rights Movement.

The word changed to the A in the last couple of decades and was reclaimed by the Black community. Because it was reclaimed it is no longer offensive is used with the A. But there is a distinct difference between the two. Many people use this word. It is not specialized to the Black community. People of all color now use this word. It is in music and movies. It really depends on who you are with, where you are born, and what your background is. The A is a colloquialism and is used with friends.

Neither of these terms should be used in school.

That was the gist of the conversation.

However, my little boy with Autism came up to me confused. He stated, “So I can use those words?”

“Baby, have you ever used those words?’

“Which words?”

“The Nword or the A”

“Which words were they?

“Nigger or Nigga…If you don’t know what they are and you have never used them, I don’t think it’s something you should probably say. I think it would just get you into trouble. They are not good words. They will get you into trouble. Do you understand?”

He nodded.

During this conversation, one of the boys at the table kept shouting, “Say it again! Say it!”

At that point, I really did think he was recording me. I wasn’t concerned, because I hadn’t said anything that wasn’t educational or derogatory, or offensive. We had been having a conversation.

After I addressed the one little boy, he nodded his head and sat down, and went back to his computer. I asked if there were any questions. The kids said no, and that was that.

Fast forward to a month later.

On my calendar, a meeting with my supervisor kept popping up throughout the month of February. I figured it was to talk about an observation or something. Due to me being out or her being out, if kept getting canceled.

Yesterday we met. And it went…

“Hey, what’s up?”

“Hey, Come in. You’re not in trouble.”

Hmmm. When someone tells you you’re not in trouble, it usually still means they think you did something wrong. Or they think you did something wrong.

“Yeah. Did you talk to a group of students about the N word?”

“Yes, I did. They wanted to have a conversation about it. I educated them about the difference between them and the history between the two.”

She proceeded to play a video one of the kids recorded of me using the words. It was the video of me explaining to the little boy and that kid shouting to repeat myself.

Video stopped.

“Can you give me some insight?”

I took a deep breath and explained basically everything I just wrote above.

I was furious.

I was told that I wasn’t getting written up BUT it was going to get written up and put in my file.


“You can’t do things like that. You can’t say that word you know. Just don’t do it again.”

I just shook my head.

“No, I promise you. I will never educate anyone on the subject again. I guarantee it will not happen on this campus.”

“Thanks. I’ll just need you to sign that we spoke about this.”

I did look at her and told her, “Ya know, one of the primary reasons you and the rest of the admin have such a problem with this is that you’re white. I don’t mean any disrespect, but it is part of the problem. White people have a bigger problem with this word than most people. They’re more outraged than people of color. You can’t teach what I was teaching. I wouldn’t be the same. You’ve never experienced it But I get what you’re saying. I’ll never do it again.”

For twenty years, I’ve addressed the N word as it has come up. Most kids don’t understand it. Most kids just know it’s a bad word and that it’s offensive. They don’t know why it’s offensive. They don’t know that its origin just meant black. The bottom line is, they just don’t know.

Well, I’m just tired. TWENTY YEARS. I’m tired. I have ten more years to go. I don’t know if I’ll make it. I guess the world has changed to an era of consequences where you can’t educate and speak the unspoken. How are kids to learn if we continue to censer all their information?

Are we to write out Mark Twain because he uses the slur, or do we use it as a teaching moment? Or will that teacher who does that get a talking to as well?

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