The word

Destyn Land, Contributor

My eyes pierced his blonde hair and smirking smile, as he sat in the desk laughing at the unsettling look on my face. I remember looking him in the eye and saying, “What did you say?” As I tried to block out an excruciating flashback on the sand of my first grade baseball field. My mind replayed his White body tackling me to the ground, and the taste of little pebbles in the sand being in my mouth. I remembered rising up and giving him a blow to the jaw, and hearing the loud voice of his cries and screams. He said the word that dehumanized my existence and took me to the ground. Somehow it was still my fault. I stopped zoning out, and remembered the feelings of my hands beginning to shake, and my voice suddenly becoming dry. He looked at me and said, “Nigger.” For a few seconds my heart sink into my stomach and I felt a beating in my chest. I felt pain in my back, as if the lashes of a generation were on it. I froze.

He said it again, and the other White students stood there silent, just like my first grade teacher did on the playground. Fire filled my bones, and I stepped behind him and began to choke him. I squeezed as hard as I could, and couldn’t let go. The classroom was worried, and yelled “Stop! Stop!” “He can’t breathe!” “You’re going to kill him!” I finally let go and I cried.

Moments later we sat in Principal Vang’s office, and the kid who called me a Nigger said, “I was saying I hate rap music because they say the word “Nigger” too much.” They called my friend Ian to the office. He was a White boy, but I remembered him standing right there, and knew that he would tell what really happened so that truth would come to light.

I was wrong.

He defended him, and left me alone. I had in school suspension for two days, and when I came back to the classroom I was greeted by the same student, with the same word.

My White teachers told me that it’s just a Word, without recognizing that the Word is saying my existence does not matter. Hearing the word come from White lips, even when it’s quoted directly from the text makes my stomach ache. “We have to use the Word to fully experience, what the text is saying,” says every non-black educator. While they feel ‘moved’ and ‘startled’ by the word, my Black body trembles, and my Black ears slowly become red.

My community isn’t sensitive, my community is tired. Tired of having to defend ourselves and tired of demanding respect at the very institutions who beg us to be here, who profit off of us, and who love us (until we call out their Whiteness). For a second, let’s stop talking about academic freedom, and start talking about respect. I recognize that we must acknowledge the word when discussing Literature, but we must do so in a way that respects our identity. Words are among the most powerful of things and please understand that most Black students do not want to hear their middle-aged White professor, or their White peers say the N-Word. In addition to this, it’s also important to recognize that no one can be the spokesperson for their race, so asking your one Black student in class if it’s okay to use it, is not appropriate, it’s disrespectful. If White people saying the word in the classroom (regardless of the context), is adding to anyone’s pain, then the solution is simple. As a White professor, stop using it, and stop leaving room for your White and non-Black students to use it as well. Period.

This article was originally published in the April 12, 2019 issue.