I didn’t post yesterday for the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge © because I needed to sit with something and think about it. Then I needed to decide what to do. Actually, I knew what to do, but I also knew it would be difficult, and I needed to figure out how to say what I needed to say.
I have taught books by White writers that include the n-word in their books in the past, specifically To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, both of which I mistakenly believed were antiracist. However, what both books have in common is that the Black characters serve as plot devices for White characters to learn about racism and injustice. Both of these books were in the curriculum I taught. I wasn’t made to teach either book and had the power to remove both of them and chose not to. I really regret those choices. I could have been teaching actual antiracist texts.
Another choice I regret is how I handled the language in both books. Some time back, my argument wouldn’t have been too much different from the argument cited here by Cait Hutsell, although, to be fair to my former self, I would have justified it by its inclusion in the text rather than some idea that I was “ban[ning] words from human discourse”:
I said white teachers shouldn’t read the n-word aloud. pic.twitter.com/aIqbzyKKdq
— Cait Hutsell (@caitteach) June 26, 2020
Cait is right, of course. It was Cait’s tweet that prompted me to sit and think about my actions. Cait’s tweet was retweeted by several other people I follow who added their thoughts to the tweet, and they helped me figure out what I needed to do. Mary Worrell’s tweet in response to a thread by shea martin on failed allyship of another kind helped me figure out what I needed to do.
Public harm (any harm really) requires public acknowledgement and recognition of the harm done. If you only want to encourage privately, you’re not genuine in your support. If you ask how to help and the person tells you, be prepared to do that. Otherwise don’t ask. https://t.co/sHRycbHEhF
— Mary Worrell (@SeeMaryTeach) June 27, 2020
So, I am here to acknowledge publicly that I believe my actions in how I taught these novels were harmful. I explained to students that the word would appear in the novel. In my early years, I justified reading the word aloud because it was in the text. Later on, I confronted the word head-on at the beginning of our text study. We read the poem “Incident” by Countee Cullen and Gloria Naylor’s essay “The Meaning of a Word.” We also watched news clips about Huckleberry Finn‘s place in the curriculum. While this frontloading centered the voices of Black writers and their experience with the word, my next step was in the wrong direction. I asked the students how they wanted to handle the word when we read passages aloud. It’s wrong to put that on students, and it’s something I recognized because, in more recent years, I have simply said we are not going to say the word—I don’t care if it’s in the text.
I wish I could say I reached this understanding many years ago, but I didn’t, and my ignorance caused harm. Even if it’s true that I have not used that word outside of reading it in a text, I shouldn’t have even done that. I apologize to my former students. I’m sorry that my Black students experienced the racial trauma of hearing the word. I’m sorry that my White students took away from my lessons that using that word as long as it was in a text was okay.
I want to thank all the Twitter educators for making me reflect seriously on this harmful practice. You have my promise that I have changed my approach to texts entirely—actually to the point that I will no longer teach White writers who use that word in their writing (we can have arguments about realism all you want; you know why they used it).
I would urge my fellow White teachers to contemplate their practice on reading this word aloud, too. If you’re doing it, stop.
As a side note, on Thursday, this blog turned 15 years old, and I let the day pass by without remarking on it. Thanks to those of you who choose to read and engage.