We have to learn to talk about racism if we want to stop it
CHICAGO -- A few weeks ago, I got into what became a heated argument with one of my young students, who was indignant that her teacher flat-out refused to share an important cultural, political and social fact.
The topic was a term that will never pass my lips: the N-word.
"But what does it mean?" pleaded the student, the lone white girl in a 99% Latino classroom. And she was not trying to push my buttons, be defiant or stop our classroom lesson.
We had been discussing the inarguable fact of slavery's impact on the bargain struck to make Washington, D.C., our nation's capital. The decision was made in part to appease Southerners' concern about not having the nation's seat of power too far north. That's when she asked me the question that I couldn't answer.
I told her that the N-word was so fraught, so toxic and so loaded with hatred toward blacks that I absolutely could not say it aloud.
"It's as if you were asking me to tell you what the 'F-word' is," I explained, empathizing because she truly wanted to understand why I refused to share something that was common knowledge, based on her classmates' begging her not to go there. "I could describe the F-word, but I couldn't write the full word on the board or whisper it in your ear or write it on a piece of paper and pass it to you."
This student made a compelling argument: If it's so very important to not say the N-word, shouldn't I name it, say it aloud for educational purposes and discuss why it's so bad instead of asking her to go home and ask her parents to explain the whole thing to her?
Finally, I wrapped up the conversation: "Look, I don't want to lose my job. If I breathe this word aloud, and our principal hears about it, I'm in big trouble. You don't want me to go away and not come back, do you?"
That did it, because I wasn't being hyperbolic. Zero-tolerance rules against bullying and racial epithets in U.S. public schools put me -- one of a tiny handful of teachers of color in a typically all-white teaching staff -- at risk of losing my job. Even if I was explaining a slur during a teachable moment.
Only a few weeks later, in Madison, Wisconsin -- a bastion of progressive values in the middle of a conservative, rural landscape -- high school security guard Marlon Anderson's situation proved my point.