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.