Can Educators Ever Teach the N-Word?

A school suspended a teacher for using the racial epithet in an educational context. Now he's suing his district. Why is this considered hate speech?


Lincoln Brown, the 6th grade Chicago school teacher suspended for uttering the word "nigger" in class -- in the context of criticizing its use -- has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against his principal and the Chicago public schools, the Chicago Sun Times reported last week. Brown claims that he was taking advantage of a "teachable moment," conducting a discussion of racism sparked by inclusion of the word in a note passed between students. The school principal, however, accused Brown of verbal abuse, equating his utterance of the verboten word with "cruel, immoral, negligent or criminal conduct or communication" to his students.

Sad to say, this is not an unusual controversy: A few years ago, veteran Brandeis Professor Donald Hindley was found guilty of racial harassment for uttering the word "wetback" in a Latin American politics class, while explaining its use as a pejorative. Hindley protested his punishment, but periodically some public figure or other offers an abject apology for innocently referencing an epithet, (as I periodically lament).

Words are not incantations; they do not cast spells. They take their meaning and power from the contexts in which they appear.

Someday, perhaps, the idiocies of equating critical references to epithets with malicious uses of them will be self-evident. Someday we may conquer our phobias and stop compiling a lexicon of words that may be known only by their initials, if at all, like the sacred Name of God, or Voldemort. In the meantime, we have to persist in arguing the obvious: Words are not incantations; they do not cast spells. Instead, they take their meaning and power from the contexts in which they appear.

But our superstitious avoidance of epithets, regardless of context, is deeply entrenched. It was shaped decades ago by the convergence of popular therapeutic nostrums about abuse with critical race theories about hate speech and feminist assaults on pornography. While right-wing censors associate free speech with sexual permissiveness (or treason), censors on the left characterize it as an anti-egalitarian instrument of power. Racist speech should be subject to administrative and criminal sanctions, law professor Mari Matsuda argued some 20 years ago: "Racist hate messages, threats, slurs, epithets, and disparagement" convey racist messages in the streets, in schools, and in popular culture, she stressed. Their victims -- members of racially subordinated groups -- are harmed physically and psychologically, while suffering restrictions on personal freedom and diminished economic opportunities.

Like other left-wing proponents of censorship, Matsuda rejected slippery slope arguments raised by civil libertarians, suggesting that actionable hate speech could be narrowly defined and distinguished from merely unpopular speech, political dissent, or the "teachable moment" speech for which Lincoln Brown was suspended. Matsuda excused references to racist speech made "for purposes other than prosecution." She was willing to tolerate racist speech when uttered by "non-persecuting presenter(s) ... news reporters who repeat racist speech in reporting the news of its utterance (or) law professors who repeat racist words in hypotheticals for class discussion of the first amendment."

So, presumably Matsuda would defend the Chicago Sun-Times if it dared spell out the word "nigger" in its story about Lincoln Brown, just as she would defend Brown for trying to engage his class in a discussion of racism. Indeed, if she and other censorship theorists on the left meant what they said about targeting abusive or "assaultive" speech -- and not speech deemed merely offensive or uttered innocently, in order to teach, not persecute -- they would loudly and persistently condemn the punishment of people like Lincoln Brown, along with the absurdly overbroad, repressive speech and harassment policies common on college campuses. They would be appalled, or at least abashed, by the rotten fruits of their theories  -- policies that punish students for engaging in satire or for merely reading books with covers that someone finds offensive. History has proven the censorship theorists wrong about our ability to remain on top of the slippery slope; we hit bottom long ago.